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The Nation Is Not a Family

Here’s a letter to someone who is “convinced by arguments of Oren Cass and his fellow economic traditionalists.”

Mr. Morrison:

Objecting to my support for free trade you write that “when properly done trade restrictions ensure we Americans work for each other, our greater good, and not endanger our countrymen by pursuing narrow goals. As all members of a family coordinate their efforts for the welfare of the family, it’s like that for our country.”

With respect, I could not disagree more – and for reasons that I now have neither the time nor inclination to list in their entirety. So I content myself to mention only two.

First, you assume that trade-policy decisions made by government officials are intended to further the country’s general welfare in the same way that mom’s and dad’s economic decisions are intended to further the family’s general welfare. This assumption strikes me as being naïve in the extreme.

Do you really believe that government officials, when imposing tariffs (on people they do not know) and handing out subsidies (paid for with money from people they do not know), consistently ignore special-interest group pressures – which are incessant – in order to further the general welfare? And even if you make the spectacular leap to believe that, say, Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren love all Americans in the same way that you love your wife and children, what reason have you to think that these or any other politicians can possibly know which particular industries will, and which won’t, over time best serve Americans’ interests?

Second, you seem to agree – as do I – that it’s good and right that family members coordinate their efforts to best promote the welfare of the family. And so notice this: tariffs and subsidies remove from family members the right to make those decisions that they deem best for their families. With tariffs and subsidies, officials in Washington forcibly override each family’s choices of which particular goals to pursue and of how best to achieve these goals. Government-officials’ political decisions trump each family’s decisions.

If you truly admire and respect the practice of each family making decisions to promote its welfare, you should wish to protect the sanctity of each family’s ability to make these decisions. Protection of this sanctity for the family requires rejection of tariffs, subsidies, and other exercises of “industrial policy.”

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


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