Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “If I were a shill for industry…”

by Don Boudreaux on February 5, 2020

in Archived writings, Myths and Fallacies, Truth-seeking & ideology

In my Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column of March 13th, 2008, I ridiculed the lazy and juvenile presumption that people who endorse free markets are mercenary shills for capitalists. You can read my column beneath the fold (link added).

If I were a shill for industry…

A blogger recently complained that I (along with my fellow bloggers from George Mason University’s Department of Economics) “seem to be shills for industry.” This lazy accusation is as familiar as it is mistaken, for if I were truly a shill for industry…

… I’d be wealthy, raking in many more dollars than I now take in from my job as a professor at a state university.

… I would not have come by my strong preference for freedom and free markets when I was still an undergraduate at Nicholls State University in south Louisiana. Corporations are not known for trying to buy opinion-formation from unknown people who have absolutely no voice or platform for influencing public opinion.

… I would oppose free markets. Free markets, after all, are markets open to competition that invariably keeps the profits of existing firms from remaining excessive and, often, even bankrupts firms once thought to be invincible industry leaders. Existing firms almost all deplore competition in their industries. They seek government regulations that hamstring rivals and potential rivals. And, of course, firms are forever pleading for “protection” from foreign competition.

I just wrote a book (“Globalization”) in which I make a strong and principled case for completely free trade – not free trade sometimes, for some firms, under some circumstances, with some qualifications, but free trade always, for all firms, under all circumstances, and with no qualifications.

Whether my book’s case for unalloyed free trade is correct or not, it is surely not the sort of book that causes the heads of many corporate CEOs to nod in eager agreement. The typical reaction of business people whenever they hear or read me make my case for genuinely free trade is to say something like, “Professor Boudreaux, you don’t understand the peculiarities of my industry.” And then each executive launches into a laundry list of excuses for why Congress should protect his industry from foreign rivals.

If I were an industry shill…

… I’d express agreement with these self-serving claims and do my best in my writings and speeches to make a case for “fair trade,” or “balanced trade,” or “trade that’s in our national interest” — but never for free trade.

Here’s a surefire rule: If you find a protective tariff, you can safely bet your pension that some industry interests lobbied for it.

… I would support (rather than oppose) the war in Iraq. Big corporations, after all, stand to make big bucks supplying the Pentagon with all sorts of nifty weaponry and other military supplies. A true corporate shill wouldn’t let trivial questions about the rightness or wrongness of any particular military adventure prevent him from supporting that adventure — or, indeed, prevent him from regularly singing the praises of war and ever-expanding defense budgets.

… If I were a shill for industry I would bend over backward to excuse Uncle Sam’s agricultural support programs. After all, the lucre dispensed by such programs flows chiefly to large agribusinesses, while the costs of these programs are footed by ordinary taxpayers and consumers. As it happens, though, I steadfastly, openly and unconditionally oppose Uncle Sam’s agricultural programs. Were it in my power to do so, I’d abolish the Department of Agriculture immediately.

… I would support tort reform enacted by legislatures. But while I agree that some lawsuits are absurd and unjust, my fear of legislatures monkeying with common-law tort rules — along with my recognition that corporations sometimes are negligent and, hence, deserving of being slapped with hefty civil penalties — keeps me from having any enthusiasm for tort reform.

Finally, if I were a shill for industry, my shame would keep me from sleeping soundly. In fact, however, each night I enjoy long hours of sleep undisturbed by any such guilt.


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