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Standing Still is Not an Option

Here’s a letter that I sent a couple of weeks ago to the New York Times Book Review:

Dear Editor:

Reviewing British economist Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism, Reihan Salam tells us that Mr. Collier is dismayed at how economic growth, including globalization, has caused his hometown of Sheffield to be much-changed today from how it was during his boyhood in the 1950s (“Saving Local Communities in a Globalized World,” Jan. 6).

Well, yes. Economies that raise standards of living always change lifestyles, mores, and expectations – and they do so in ways that Mr. Collier and others of us who are old enough to be grandparents typically lament. But rosy recollections of the past are poor reasons to restrain trade or to otherwise tamp down competitive markets in attempts to recreate that which once was.

The Sheffield of Mr. Collier’s boyhood was itself much-changed from how it was a few generations earlier. In 1858 Henry Bessemer established his steel company in Sheffield. This development – while surely making many older natives of mid-19th-century Sheffield long for the past, curse the present, and fear the future – was inseparable from the economic development that created the mid-20th-century Sheffield so beloved by Mr. Collier.

And ironically – given that “import competition” is among the demons that Mr. Collier blames for changing Sheffield for the worse – in 1831 the Sheffield Mechanics’ Anti-Bread Tax Society issued a Declaration in support of unilaterally repealing Britain’s tariffs on imports of grain (“corn”). This Sheffield association soon afterward became part of John Bright’s and Richard Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League – still history’s most famous and most effective organization for promoting a policy of unilateral free trade.

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