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Protectionism’s Deep Confusions

Here’s a letter to regular Cafe Hayek commenter “Warren Platts”:

Mr. Platts:

Commenting on this recent blog post, you protest that “The United States has no moral obligation to allow unfettered access to its home market.”

Thank you for revealing in such a short compass the immense depth of both economic and ethical confusion in which you and other protectionists flail.

Economic confusion: You regard the U.S. government allowing foreign suppliers to sell more freely in the U.S. as an act of generosity by – as a gift given by – Americans to non-Americans. Yet it is no such thing. While foreign suppliers who successfully sell in the U.S. do benefit from access to the U.S. market, so, too, do Americans benefit from this foreign access to the U.S market. Every import sold in America is voluntarily purchased by Americans. No foreign seller gains without thereby improving the economic welfare of its American customers.

Even if we Americans completely disregard the well-being of foreigners, allowing foreign sellers unfettered access to the American market is a benefit to us. And it is a benefit as real, as unambiguous, and as unmixed as is the benefit we Americans gain from any manifestation of economic competition.

Ethical confusion: By restricting foreign-sellers’ access to the American market, the U.S. government restricts Americans’ access to foreign sellers. Such a restriction is ethically indefensible. Your formulation that the U.S. government “has no moral obligation to allow unfettered access to its home market” is perverse; in reality, the U.S. government has no moral right to deny us Americans unfettered access to whichever sellers we choose to patronize.

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