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Free Traders Endorse a Policy of Unilateral Free Trade

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Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Edmund Miller – insisting that Pres. Trump is really a free trader – rejects my criticism of Mr. Trump’s trade policies by asserting that “[t]he president is trying to level the playing field for trade, and using the threat or imposition of increased tariffs to get those on the other side to reconsider their position on this issue” (Letters [2], Dec. 11).

Mr. Miller misconstrues the case for the home country to pursue a policy of free trade. This case focuses on consumers. It’s rooted in the understanding that trade policy should be judged only by how much it enables citizens of the home country to increase their consumption. The greater the amount of consumption over time, the better.

Yet the unremitting talk of ‘leveling playing fields’ reveals a focus on producers. Those who talk in this manner wrongly presume that trade policy should be judged by how well it enables existing domestic producers to increase their sales. Believing that trade policy is good or bad depending on how well or poorly existing home-country producers fare under it, such people naturally endorse, as means of opening markets for existing producers, tariffs and other restrictions on their fellow-citizens’ freedom to consume.

Standard-issue protectionists such as Mr. Trump are distinguished from myself and other free traders not by any failure to pronounce that a world with zero trade restrictions would be ideal. Rather, the difference between protectionists and free traders is that, while protectionists believe that a policy of free trade at home is justified only if there is a policy of free trade abroad, free traders believe that a policy of free trade at home is justified regardless of the policies abroad.

In short, true free traders reject the protectionist creed that other governments’ use of trade restrictions to tilt the playing field in favor of some of their producers and against all of their consumers justifies our government’s use of trade restrictions to tilt the playing field in favor of some of our producers and against all of our consumers.

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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