Here’s a letter to a new Cafe Hayek reader, Mr. Rick Smyth:
You “strongly reject” my argument – made in this letter to Nolan McKinney – that all jobs are justified ultimately and only by the amount of consumption that they make possible. In your view, work has “intrinsic value.”
I don’t deny that much work has value. But I do deny that that value is intrinsic. The value of work comes only from the value of what it produces, and this value is determined ultimately by the use that human beings can make of what is produced.
If you work diligently and skillfully as an armed robber, your work obviously has negative value, for you produce nothing and reduce the well-being of your victims. If instead you work diligently and skillfully at repeatedly digging a hole and refilling it, your work also has negative value (although not as negative as that of an armed robber). The reason is that what you ‘produce’ in this ‘job’ is of value to no one, and all the time and effort that you spend to produce this valueless output is time and effort that you do not spend producing things of value. (Any personal, ‘intrinsic benefits – benefits other than pay, such as pride or self-discipline – that you reap from performing a particular job are for you consumption experiences.)
Workers who hold jobs that exist only because these jobs are protected by trade restrictions produce negative value in the same way that armed robbers produce negative value. With protectionism as with armed robbery, other people’s options are forcibly restricted in order to prompt them to transfer some of their wealth to the robbers or to the protected workers.
Protectionism, like armed robbery, forcibly transfers wealth – and in a way that makes society poorer. And therefore the expenditure of skill, effort, and diligence by workers in jobs that exist only because of tariffs is no more to be admired than is the expenditure of skill, effort, and diligence by armed robbers: both kinds of workers produce negative value when compared to the productive efforts that these workers would perform were they not in these lines of work.
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