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And What About Those of Us Who Embrace Freedom?

Here’s a letter to a woman who wrote in response to my piece yesterday at MarketWatch:

Ms. Amanda Crossland

Ms. Crossland:

You write that “Maximizing consumption isn’t all that counts…. [R]estricting trade is necessary to protect things people value more highly than slightly cheaper t-shirts, like the jobs workers value because they embrace those kinds of work as ends in and of themselves.”

With respect, you misunderstand the case for free trade.

First, the material benefits of free trade are vastly larger than “slightly cheaper t-shirts.” If the only benefit that free trade brings to us is slightly cheaper t-shirts, then the only benefit that protectionism would bring to us would be slightly more jobs making t-shirts.

Second, in a free market every person is free to choose, within the constraints of his or her own resources and abilities, how much value to attach to material consumption and how much to attach to other pursuits. But what no person is free to do is to oblige others to subsidize his or her choices. I, for example, should be free to work as a poet but not empowered to force you either directly to buy my poetry or to obstruct your freedom to spend your money on mystery novels, movies, and other items that compete with my poetry.

In short, if I really do embrace working at a job in which I produce relatively little that is of value to my fellow human beings, the person who should pay the price for me nevertheless to continue to embrace my job as a poet is me. I am not entitled to foist the cost of my embracing this preference onto others.

Third, what about workers whose jobs are destroyed by protectionism? Does the value that these workers attach to their jobs count less than does the value that workers who compete with imports attach to their jobs? Contrary to your presumption, protectionism destroys as many jobs as it protects. Using protectionism, say, to prevent fellow American Jones from losing his job in the steel mill causes fellow American Smith to lose her job in the automobile factory. And so unless you can explain why Jones’s embrace of his job is more deserving of protection than is Smith’s embrace of her job, trade restrictions do not accomplish your goal of justifiably preventing workers from losing jobs that they embrace as ends in and of themselves.

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


Ironically, this morning I had my second cataract surgery and implantation of a permanent artificial lens. The implantation of this lens ensures that I no longer must buy contact lenses – meaning that some workers at 1-800-CONTACTS might lose jobs that they “embrace.