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The Fetish for Manufacturing is Foolish

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Here’s a letter to my daily correspondent, Nolan McKinney:

Mr. McKinney:

You assert that “protection of US manufacturing is necessary because with fewer of us actually knowing how to make things we run the risk of one day being unable to get the things we need.”

I remind you that despite a decades-long decline [2] in U.S. manufacturing employment, U.S. manufacturing output today is near an all-time high [3], and U.S. manufacturing capacity is at an all-time high [4]. It follows that the typical U.S. manufacturing worker is today vastly more productive than was his or her counterpart of decades ago [5].

So while there might well today be fewer of us who directly ‘know how to make things,’ the knowledge of those Americans who do today know how to make things is much greater than it was in the past. Would you prefer that 100 of your neighbors each knows how to make one ‘thing’ a day, or that 50 of your neighbors each knows how to make three ‘things’ a day? To the extent that your ability to “get the things” that you need depends upon how many of your neighbors know how to make these things, the latter situation is clearly better than the former. And it’s the latter situation that we now have in the U.S.

But your argument is marred by a deeper flaw – namely, you’re mistaken to suppose that our access to ‘things’ is in jeopardy unless ‘we’ ourselves make the ‘things’ that ‘we’ need.

Like most Americans, I make none of the things that I need or want. I grow none of the food that I eat; I manufacture none of the cars that I drive; I produce none of the furniture in my home or office; I’ve never built any of the homes in which I’ve lived; I’ve never stitched together a piece of clothing that I wear; indeed, I wouldn’t begin to know where to begin to make an item as simple as an ordinary metal spoon of the sort that now sits in a drawer in my kitchen. And yet I haven’t ever lost a wink of sleep worrying that my lack of knowledge of how to make any good that I use jeopardizes my economic future.

What I do know is how to perform my job (one, by the way, that’s in the service sector and that pays handsomely). And I know also how to exchange my output for the various things that I fancy. How ironic that you and your fellow protectionists obstruct with tariffs my and other Americans’ abilities to exchange our outputs for the maximum possible number of things that we want. It is you and your fellow protectionists – not free trade or foreign producers – who raise my and other Americans’ “risk of one day being unable to get the things we need.”

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