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Misreading Scott Lincicome

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Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Editor:

Seeking to justify Trump’s protectionism, Henry Olsen alleges that the case for free trade is ethically deficient (“Conservative elites love to defend market orthodoxy. Don’t fall for it [2].,” June 11). A key piece of his evidence is this quotation from free-trade advocate Scott Lincicome [3]: “Why should certain American industries and workers have a moral claim to government protection? Why should government prioritize those workers’ living standards above their fellow citizens?” – about which Olsen comments “If there is no moral standard against which we can measure market outcomes, then Lincicome is right to protest. But if there is such a standard, then market interventions are not only morally justified, they become morally mandatory.”

Olsen seriously distorts Linciome’s meaning. Lincicome never wrote that there is no moral standard against which we can measure market outcomes. Quite the contrary. Lincicome’s point begins with the reality that protectionism artificially helps some American industries and workers only by artificially damaging others. And so protectionism is unethical because it elevates the welfare of those who reap the benefits of protectionism over that of those who necessarily suffer – and protectionism performs this inequitable elevation for no reason other than the fact that its beneficiaries possess more political power or saliency than do its victims.

Lincicome’s, and all free-traders’, moral standard is one of equity: no one gets special favors. The fact that Olsen misses this core element of the case for free trade reveals the intellectual weakness of those who struggle to do the impossible, namely, to supply credible ethical and economic justification for Trump’s economic nationalism.

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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