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Free Trade Is About Much More than Dollars and Cents

Here’s a letter to an occasional Cafe Hayek reader who tells me that he’s part of a weekly discussion group that meets at a coffee shop in a suburb of Milwaukee:

Mr. Cole Barber

Mr. Barber:

Thanks very much for your e-mail. Thanks also for sharing some of my blog posts on trade with your reading group. I’m honored that you do so.

You ask how I would reply to your friend Nick’s objection that, as you relay it, “there is more to trade than dollars and cents.”

I agree wholeheartedly that there’s more – much more – to trade than dollars and cents. Among the many non-material values at stake are freedom and dignity. I value, in and of itself, my freedom to spend my earnings as I choose. I value also other people’s freedom to do the same with their earnings.

And I celebrate the dignity that each of us can earn by building meaningful lives not only by spending our incomes wisely, creatively, and without obstruction from politicians, but also by earning our incomes in ways that are of greatest assistance to our fellow human beings. Tariffs, alas, promote only undignified ways of reaping incomes, for incomes reaped behind tariff walls are not fully earned. Those incomes are partly the result of the state forcibly stripping fellow citizens of attractive economic options. Where’s the dignity in incomes reaped because of special favors that are created only by saddling other with special burdens? How is it dignified for Jones to have his standard of living raised by a process that forcibly lowers the standard of living of Smith and Williams?

And what about the dignity denied to our and Nick’s countless unseen fellow citizens who are obliged by protectionism to work at jobs that are less fulfilling and less remunerative – and of less assistance to others – than would be the jobs these fellow citizens would hold but for protectionism? The fact that these negatively affected fellow citizens are invisible to the naked eye doesn’t mean that they aren’t real; it means only that they’re invisible. I submit that it is highly undignified – and dishonest – to beg the state for special privileges and then to ignore the consequent damage to others simply because this damage is not in plain sight.

My principal objection to protectionism isn’t rooted in a concern for dollars and cents. Rather, it’s rooted in my concern for the many non-material values, such as freedom and dignity, that are promoted by a policy of free trade and that are mocked and trampled upon by protectionism.

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


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