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If Only It Could Happen….

Commenting on this superb post, over at The Corner, by my intrepid colleague Veronique de Rugy on the destructiveness of Trump’s protectionism, someone named Leroy Colsen writes:

“But we know that, – a tariff is actually an attack on domestic consumers and workers in other industries.”

Good thing that Americans don’t need jobs. We can just have Chinese make EVERYTHING we need. Hey! Where’s my welfare check?

This comment is the sort that prompted me recently to write this post about protectionists.  The vast majority of protectionists have no arguments; they have only slogans and confused rhetorical questions that they mistakenly think to be profound and decisive.

Among the many features of reality that Mr. Colsen is apparently unaware of is the fact that the principle of comparative advantage assures us that each individual will always have a comparative advantage at producing some good or service and, therefore, the outcome that Mr. Colsen describes and fears (“Chinese make EVERYTHING we need”) is an economic impossibility as long as any American has even the slightest bit of gumption to work.

But let me press against the boundaries of logic and ask you to suppose – just suppose – that Mr. Colsen’s absurd scenario comes true in reality: the Chinese make EVERYTHING we need.  Why should we lament such an outcome?

We need food?  The Chinese make it for us.  We need more food?  No prob.  The Chinese make it for us.  We need smartphones, houses, lamps, cars, superhighways, jumbo jets, aspirin, birth-control pills, deck furniture, leashes for our dogs, and snacks for our cats?  The Chinese make these things for us.  We need heart surgery, yoga lessons, our streets plowed of snow, our lawns cleared of autumn leaves, and our babies safely watched on our date nights?  The Chinese will provide.

Mr. Colsen seems to think that a world in which your every need is supplied fully by someone else without you ever having to lift a finger to do anything in return for that magnificent benefactor is a bad world.  But, obviously, it’s not.  It’s an earthly paradise, at least for those on the receiving end.  (Of course – and unfortunately – in reality the Chinese are no more altruistic toward us Americans than we are toward them.  It’s sad but true that, contrary to Mr. Colsen’s bizarrely unrealistic assumption, the Chinese won’t produce things for us if we don’t produce things either directly for them or for other foreigners who produce things directly for them.)

Let me anticipate an objection by noting that it will not do to respond to me by observing that each of us gets dignity and finds worth in work.  I agree that this claim about work is true.  But in Mr. Colsen’s imaginary magnificent world of unbounded Chinese altruism toward us Americans, each of us would have much greater scope than we have now to choose which kinds of tasks we’d like to perform, either for ourselves or for others.  You could still, if you wished, mow your own lawn, build your own gazebo, shovel your own snow, catch your own fish, raise your own chickens, knit your own sweater, and repair your own roof.  I could still talk to my friends and other interested parties about economics.  I could still write economics research papers.  I could still pen op-eds that reveal for the ten-billionth time the dangers and illogic of protectionism.  In order to say that there would be literally nothing for us to do would be to imagine that we are no longer humans on earth but disembodied spirits in nirvana – in which case it would be beyond churlish for us to complain about the Chinese munificence that transported us to such a divine state.