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A Protectionist is Someone Who…

… mistakes creation for destruction, and destruction for creation.  Because a protectionist sees jobs as ends in themselves – because a protectionist sees jobs as the principal things produced by an economy – the protectionist views the elimination of the need for a job to be performed as destruction, as a loss to the economy of something valuable.  In this view (as in so much else), the protectionist is not only mistaken, but has matters backwards.  Jobs as such are not valuable; what is valuable is the output produced by a worker in a job.  Only because that output is valuable are people willing to pay a worker to perform a job.  If that output is no longer valuable, that job no longer has any useful function.

When through innovation or trade any given amount of valuable output becomes available with less labor, jobs, it is said, are “destroyed.”  But nothing valuable has been destroyed.  Instead, if anything is properly said to be “destroyed,” it is a cost that has been destroyed.  What has been “destroyed” is the heretofore unfortunate need to spend as much labor as was once required to make some given amount of output available.  Now that that output is available with less labor, something has been created.  Participants in the market in which this good or service is now available with less labor than before not only have an undiminished – or an even greater – amount of this good or service, they have also that which they earlier did not have, namely, whatever valuable goods or services will now be produced and made available only because the production of other goods or services now requires less labor than before.

In short, the protectionist reckons costs – the need to labor – to be benefits, and therefore mistakes the lowering of costs to be a loss of benefits.  This protectionist error is as deep as it is common.


A reliable mental experiment when discussing jobs and trade or innovation is to imagine that you’re Robinson Crusoe stranded alone on a desert island.  You have to work very hard to supply yourself with the bare necessities of survival.  Would you regard yourself as being blessed or cursed if, upon awakening one morning, you discover that some friendly natives from a nearby island have deposited on your island – as a gift to you – a year’s worth of food along with a promise to annually provision you with food in this way?  Of course you would regard yourself as blessed.  It’s clear that these generous foreigners have enriched you even though they have “destroyed” the jobs that you would otherwise have performed to supply yourself with food.  You are clearly and unconditionally made richer by this job destruction.

What holds true for Crusoe who occupies an island alone holds true for, say, the 325 million of us Americans who occupy the landmass that cartographers call “the United States.”