An Extremely Bad Argument Against Free Trade

by Don Boudreaux on August 23, 2018

in Trade

Here’s a letter to a new reader of Cafe Hayek:

You allege that I and other “libertarian free traders” show our “silliness” and our “ideological intoxication” by rejecting “Dani Rodrik’s pragmatic recognition” that “some trade works and some trade doesn’t” and, therefore, “unconditional free trade is an extreme corner solution no more justified than any other extreme and immoderate policy.”

I extremely disagree that “some trade works and some trade doesn’t.” The reason for my disagreement is that trade is voluntary. This fact alone means that trade nearly always works. Of course there’s the occasional mistake and the occasional fraud. But as a percentage of the amount of trade that daily occurs, these defects that cause some trades not to work are vanishingly rare. Furthermore, there’s no reason whatsoever to believe that government agents with the power to obstruct trade will have both the knowledge and the incentives to use their power wisely.

A question: do you believe that women should be unconditionally free to trade with men? Or do you instead suppose that – because some women’s trade with men works and some such trade doesn’t work – you are silly and ideologically intoxicated if you insist that women nevertheless should be unconditionally free to trade with men?

I believe that Americans should be unconditionally free to trade with non-Americans for the same reason that I (and presumably you) believe that women should be unconditionally free to trade with men, that brown-eyed people should be unconditionally free to trade with blue-eyed people, that Catholics should be unconditionally free to trade with Lutherans, and that people who live west of the Mississippi should be unconditionally free to trade with people who live east of the Mississippi. Because a person’s political citizenship is as economically irrelevant as is a person’s sex, eye color, and religion, it is no more an “extreme corner solution” to endorse unconditional free trade among people with different passports than it is to endorse unconditional free trade among people with different chromosomes.

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

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