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The Absurdity of Protectionism

Here’s a letter to Mr. Andy Harris, a regular reader of Cafe Hayek:

Mr. Harris:

Thanks for your e-mail.

With respect, I disagree with you that in my letter to young Ms. Emily Shin I “did her a disservice by not giving her both sides of the debate over free trade vs protection.”

First, Ms. Shin asked me “What is the one deepest mistake made by persons who fight against free trade?” She did not ask me to list alleged mistakes made by persons who fight for free trade.

Second, the protectionist side of the debate is so muddled and absurd that, frankly, it deserves only ridicule. Intellectually, it’s the equivalent of the belief that 2+2=1, or that the moon is a slab of cheese. Yet nevertheless protectionism remains the default belief among most people – a sad reality that means that neither Ms. Shin nor anyone else needs me to rehearse protectionist fallacies and superstitions. The role that I play in this debate is to do whatever I can, however modest, to debunk this nonsense.

You might insist that there’s a middle ground between free trade and protectionism, and that the truth is to be found there. I would challenge this insistence. To me, this insistence has no more validity than would the insistence, say, in 1850 America that there’s a middle ground between slavery as it then existed and complete emancipation. While I do not believe that protectionism is an evil remotely equivalent to chattel slavery, I also have no doubt that protectionism is an evil and that, like chattel slavery, nothing good can sensibly be said in its defense, and that the only ethically acceptable position is its complete and unconditional abolition.

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