Behold the Protectionist

by Don Boudreaux on December 17, 2019

in Myths and Fallacies, Not from the Onion, Trade

Okay, so what I’m about to do is a bit unfair to protectionists; indeed, it is pure consumption for me: I’m going to poke fun at Warren Platts (once a frequent protectionist commenter here at Cafe Hayek and still a commenter at EconLog). The reason that what I’m going to do here is unfair to protectionists is that, although even the most-able protectionist is armed intellectually only with the equivalent of a nerf gun, these nerf-gun-toting protectionists possess far more fire power than Mr. Platts brings to the battle between protectionists and free traders.

Still, I confess to having no patience with persistent protectionists such as Mr. Platts. It’s not a crime to be ignorant and misinformed, but it’s vile to cling stubbornly to one’s ignorance and misinformation in order to justify state predation against innocent people – which is what protectionism is. And so I here gleefully expose a true howler – one that must be read to be believed – that Mr. Platts deposited on this recent EconLog post by Pierre Lemieux.

Here’s the Platts howler to which I refer:

If you want to stump a free trader economist, ask him or her what exactly a big, continental-sized economy like the USA’s ought to specialize in.

The very fact that Mr. Platts writes such a thing in a public forum is proof beyond rebuttal that he hasn’t a clue where the case for a policy of free trade comes from or what that case implies about reality.

And here’s the reply that I left at EconLog in response to this astonishing example of clueless nitwittery:

I’ve a question for Mr. Platts: What makes you think that the case for free trade in any way depends upon the ability of anyone – whether free trader, Trumpian protectionist, or Bolshevik comrade – to know in the abstract “what exactly a big, continental-sized economy like the USA’s ought to specialize in” – or, for that matter, what even the smallest and most singular economic entity ought to specialize in?

At the core of the case for free trade is the recognition that no one can tell absent open competition what should be the production specialities of particular economic entities. If it were possible in the abstract, and independently of actual competitive processes, to know the details of patterns of specialization then one of the core reasons for a policy of free trade would be absent.

It is not, then, the free trader who is “stumped” by an inability to know in the abstract what the pattern of specialization should be; the one stumped by this inability is the protectionist. The reason is that the protectionist – unlike the free trader – professes an ability to divine independently of actual competitive processes, what should be the pattern of specialization.

The Platts howler quoted above comes at the end of a comment full of howlers. It’s one in which he meanders on confusingly about rainforests and ecosystems, as well as makes a claim about Ricardo that is beyond bizarre. (“Before ‘free’ trade, in Ricardo’s example, an Englishman had two possible choices to specialize in; afterwards, there is only one choice. Efficiency losses must result.” I was initially tempted, in response to this particular absurd comment, to write something along the lines of ‘Mr. Platts continues to be unable to distinguish explanatory simplification made for heuristic purposes from the reality that those explanations are meant to elucidate,’ but upon re-reading Platts’s comment, I realize that he simply has no earthly idea what Ricardo was writing about.)

So I conclude by encouraging all readers to study Mr. Platts’s comments at EconLog – and his past comments here at Cafe Hayek – to behold a typical protectionist mind at work. (Platts’s remarks – for example, about trade deficits – in other of his comments at this same EconLog post also reveal his profound, indeed unfathomable, confusion.) If you find him to be persuasive, please contact me for my bargain-priced and guaranteed-to-make-you-a-billionaire-overnight house-flipping kit!


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