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20/20 Vision of Trade

Here’s my response to a follow-up e-mail from my new correspondent Jack Boudreaux (who, again, is not related to me):

Mr. Jack Boudreaux:

Mr. Boudreaux:

Thanks for your follow-up e-mail. You are mistaken to accuse free traders of being “insensitive to those that lose jobs to imports.” Free traders are in fact more sensitive to job losses than are protectionists.

The truth of my claim is attested to by two facts. First, unlike protectionists, free traders see not only workers who lose jobs to imports but also workers who lose jobs to protectionist policies that restrict imports. Finding no reason to favor workers who lose jobs because of trade over workers who lose jobs because of trade restrictions, free traders correctly reject protectionists’ claim that trade barriers uniquely protect domestic citizens from suffering the distress of job loss.

Second, also unlike protectionists, free traders recognize that international trade is only one of many channels through which are transmitted the economic changes that cause incessant job churn. That is, unlike protectionists who see only jobs destroyed by trade, free traders see that any economic change destroys some jobs as it creates others. Bear with me as I offer a personal example.

This month I’m having cataract surgery. Yet not only will cataracts be removed from my eyes, into each of my eyes will be implanted a permanent artificial lens. Come August 24th I will have 20/20 vision for the first time since 1964. But jobs will be destroyed! As I and the many other Americans who get these permanent artificial lenses stop buying glasses, contact lenses, and contact-lens cleaning solution, fewer workers will be employed to produce and distribute these goods.

Is the destruction of these particular jobs reason for the government to block my and other myopic individuals’ access to the permanent artificial lenses that we judge will improve our lives? If (as I hope) you answer ‘no,’ then I challenge you to explain why government should block my, your, and other individuals’ access to the imports that we judge will improve our lives. Clearly, pointing out that imports destroy particular jobs is an inadequate response to my challenge.

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

(I thank my Mercatus Center colleague Dan Griswold for pointing out to me in a recent conversation that my eye surgery will result in the destruction of particular jobs.)


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