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Eric Mack Is Correct

Here’s a letter to Eric Mack, who e-mailed me in response to my letter yesterday to Neil Garza:

7 December 2019

Prof. Eric Mack
Department of Philosophy
Tulane University
New Orleans, LA 70118

Dear Eric:

You are indeed correct that my statement – in this letter – that “we Americans shouldn’t care in the least why we’re able to buy more imports at attractive prices” is too sweeping. As you note, there might well arise in reality good reasons for why we should care, even if we are materially enriched by the imports in question.

To use one of your examples, if a foreign government enforced, or even merely tolerated, chattel slavery as a means of subsidizing the production of exports bound for America, then, yes, we Americans should very much care. We should not purchase such products, regardless of their price, even though doing so might enrich us materially. And even I, staunch free trader that I am, would support the U.S. government, it having made a credible case that some low-priced imports are produced by persons held in actual bondage, banning the sale in the U.S. of these imports.

In my earlier letter I presumed that the policies under discussion are ones that governments, including ours, today practice routinely. (As a practical matter, such policies are overwhelmingly the only ones in play in such discussions.) My position is this: if what a foreign government does to make its country’s exports artificially less pricey on world markets is of a class of actions that our government routinely carries out – or that our government, to retaliate, would feel justified in matching – then we most certainly should not care that the prices that we pay for imports from that country are made artificially low by its government’s actions.

Because national, state, and local governments in the U.S. routinely tax us for all manner of reasons – and because most Americans regard taxation as ethically acceptable – it’s illegitimate to hold foreign governments to standards higher than those to which we hold our own governments. Someone who believes that it’s okay for governments in the U.S. to tax cannot logically declare that taxation used abroad to subsidize the production of foreign-producers’ exports is so immoral as to justify U.S. government retaliation – especially given that the commonly chosen means of retaliation is the very same allegedly offensive device – taxation (for that’s what tariffs are) – against which our retaliation is ostensibly aimed!

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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