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An E-mail to Pierre Lemieux on the Ethics of Protectionism

In response to this blog post titled “Producers have No Ethical Right to a Minimum Volume of Sales,” the always-insightful Pierre Lemieux sent to me this e-mail in which he quite rightly plays devil’s advocate:

Isn’t there still a problem, though? Suppose I am in love with a woman in China and I want her to come here and live with me, and she agrees, but her government forcibly prevents her from leaving? Or suppose I am in love with her chocolates, and she and I agree that she will ship me a case, but he government, insisting on protecting national chocolate, forcibly prevents her from send them to me?

Here’s my (slightly edited and typo-corrected) response to Pierre:


Excellent question. It’s one that I’ve thought about quite a lot, which isn’t to say that you’ll be – or that you should be – convinced by my response.

The issue that you pose can be framed in two different ways, each one plausible yet neither one definitive. The first way is to treat, as a practical matter for the home country, the policies of foreign governments as reflecting the preference of those foreign countries. That is, in the same way that you treat your neighbor’s policy of (say) using his rich-parents’ largess to subsidize his restaurant as simply reflecting your neighbor’s and his parents’ preferences – as their valid choices – each government should treat the policies of other governments in a like manner.

Of course, you and I both know that no government, not even the most uncorrupt and democratic one, institutes policies that are truly analogous to the choices of individuals. Arrow, Black, Buchanan, Downs, Olson, Riker, Tullock, et al., have proven that collectives cannot meaningfully and without great danger be anthropomorphized. Yet as a practical matter, what’s a better option than to treat the policies of foreign governments as reflecting the preferences of the citizens of those countries?

It seems to me that the only other real option is to presume that all government actions are illegitimate obstacles to the exercise of choices by some of their citizens, and illegitimate privilege-giving to others of their citizens. That is, the only other option is to treat foreign governments as criminal gangs. I, of course, tend myself – overwhelmingly – to this view (although I recognize that it requires modification and qualification).

But if we go this route, then we must, I think, treat our own government in the same manner – that is, as it, too, being a criminal gang. And if we treat our own government as a criminal gang, then we cannot presume that it will act legitimately when it uses trade restrictions, even when its ostensible reason for doing so is to knock down, for our good, unjust obstacles to trade erected by other governments.

On the other hand, if we don’t treat our government as a criminal gang – that is, if we grant to our government the legitimacy to choose and to carry out policies that affect international trade, then how can we treat as illegitimate other governments’ policies that affect international trade? I don’t believe that we can do so and remain intellectually and ethically consistent.

As a practical matter in this world of ours in which states exist, in which states will continue to exist, and in which states will continue to be regarded by nearly everyone (except by bizarre people such as myself) as being not only legitimate entities but also as necessary and worthwhile entities, I believe that the only consistent policy for any home government to follow is to treat the trade policies of foreign governments as reflecting the preferences (or ‘collective preferences’) of the peoples of each of those foreign countries. In return, foreign governments treat the trade policies of the home government as reflecting the preferences of home-country citizens. But importantly, the citizens of each country are not obliged – indeed, are ill-advised – to threat the trade policies of their own governments as reflecting their preferences.

In short, if we treat our government’s trade policies as legitimate, we have no basis for treating as illegitimate the trade policies of other governments.

The second, alternative framing is to recognize that foreign-governments’ obstacles to their citizens’ trade with us are indeed illegitimate. But then we must ask: on which party should the burden of challenging these obstacles be put? I argue – and here I’ll change your example just a bit – that if I’m not allowed by a foreign government to sell my chocolates to that government’s citizens, the main injustice falls not on me but on those foreign citizens. Preventing consumers from spending their money in ways that they judge will best improve their living standards seems to me to be a more elemental offense than preventing producers from achieving maximum possible profits. Such a government obstruction takes from me nothing to which I have a property claim, although it does take from its citizens something to which they indeed have a property claim.

A more fundamental issue in this second framing is highlighted by this question: If it’s an injustice for (say) the government in Beijing to prevent some Chinese individuals from buying my chocolates, how is justice served if Uncle Sam retaliates by preventing my neighbor here in the U.S. from buying steel or tires from some other Chinese individuals?

The typical answer to this question is that Uncle Sam’s trade restrictions here are justified because they are meant to persuade Beijing to eliminate its unjust trade restrictions. (Forget here that which really ought not be forgotten, namely, that the actual intentions driving all such restrictions are rent-seeking ones having nothing whatsoever to do with the pursuit of justice.) We can agree that this outcome – mutually lowered trade barriers -would be best for all. But how is it just or legitimate to attempt to bring about this happy outcome by inflicting on innocent people in the home country the very same injustices that are committed abroad?

Suppose that your neighbor abuses his children. This injustice bothers you. Further suppose that you tell your wife that you believe that if you respond by abusing your own children that when your neighbor sees you doing so he is likely to be so appalled by this practice that he will realize the error of his ways and stop abusing his children.

Obviously, you can’t be certain that your abuse of your kids will have this happy impact on your neighbor – an uncertainty that serves as an argument against your abusing your kids. Indeed, your abusing your kids might be interpreted by your neighbor as a sign that such abuse is acceptable and so, upon seeing you abuse your kids, he commences to intensify the abuse that he inflicts on his innocent children. This possible response can’t be ignored.

But let’s assume for the sake argument that you can be certain that abusing your kids will cause your neighbor to stop abusing his kids. Would it then be just or even acceptable for you to abuse your kids? Surely not. Or, almost surely not. I reckon that a clever assistant professor of ethics could construct a scenario in which your abusing your kids under these circumstances would pass ethical muster. But in the real world – in this world in which we must (or should) follow rules-of-thumb – your abusing your kids would be rightly regarded as wrong even if your intentions are all good.

Some other method of stopping your neighbor from abusing his kids must be found. You abusing your kids is never an acceptable response, regardless of your intentions.

All best,


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