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Against the Superstition that National Borders are Economically Relevant

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Yoram Hazony wisely warns against the hubris of unreasonably substituting abstract human reason for the wisdom embodied in many evolved human institutions and norms (“The Dark Side of the Enlightenment,” April 7).  But his nearly wholesale rejection of the enlightenment is overreaction.  A much more nuanced evaluation of the power and perimeters of human reason is offered in F.A. Hayek’s 1945 essay “Individualism: True and False.”  There, Hayek distinguished what he called “Cartesian rationalism” from the correct rationalism of thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke.

Like Mr. Hazony, Hayek (along with Hume, Smith, et al.) understood the irrationality of failing to recognize that institutions and norms that stand the test of time often contain wisdom that no human mind, of whatever degree of genius, can fully comprehend and much less improve upon.  Yet unlike Mr. Hazony, Hayek (along with Hume, Smith, et al.) celebrated enlightened human reason that recognizes not only the wisdom of the ages but also the ever-present opportunities in our imperfect world for the rational human mind unfettered by tribal, political, and religious superstitions to improve human well-being.

And among the most backward and dangerous of the superstitions that Hume, Smith, Hayek, and other ‘true individualists’ fought to dispel is the notion that a nation’s borders are economically relevant.  Central to Smith’s 1776 work – An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations – and to the mainline of the discipline of economics to which this great work gave birth, is the demonstration that commerce is not naturally confined to the nation, and that attempts to so confine it enrich the few at the much greater expense of the many.  Starting with Hume and Smith, true (“classical”) liberals have correctly argued against the false rationalism of those who, slathered with the hubris that is concocted from nationalism, fancy themselves fit to surround the borders of each nation in order to obstruct the peaceful commerce that would otherwise naturally and productively – and reasonably – span these borders.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030