Thinking Soundly About Trade

by Don Boudreaux on February 23, 2020

in Curious Task, Myths and Fallacies, Trade

Here’s another letter to my incessant correspondent, “proud Trump man” Nolan McKinney; in it, I repeat a point that I’ve made in the past:

Mr. McKinney:

Writing that I’m “dogmatic” in my support for free trade, you accuse me of failing to see the “nuance” in Oren Cass’s protectionism. “He does not oppose free trade,” you claim, “he only is opposed to the extreme radical position that free trade is always beneficial and should be followed always.”

In other words, Oren Cass wants government officials to superintend Americans’ commerce with foreigners, and to obstruct it whenever these officials divine that this commerce might be harmful. This stance, Mr. McKinney, is that of a classic protectionist – of someone who is indeed hostile to free trade.

Endorsing the complete and unconditional freedom (save, perhaps, for national-security concerns) of Americans to trade with non-Americans is no more dogmatic and radical than endorsing the complete and unconditional freedom of men to trade with women – or of tall people to trade with short people – or of Catholics to trade with non-Catholics – or of Cubs fans to trade with Cardinals fans.

Just as economics and ethics make clear that there is nothing whatsoever extreme or radical about unconditional opposition to entrusting government with any discretion to impose tariffs on men’s purchases of goods and services offered for sale by women, economics and ethics make clear – again with the possible exception of national-security reasons – that there is nothing whatsoever extreme or radical about unconditional opposition to entrusting government with any discretion to impose tariffs on Americans’ purchases of goods and services offered for sale by non-Americans.

Don’t point me to textbook demonstrations of theoretical possibilities of how government can restrict Americans’ trade with foreigners in ways that enrich Americans as a whole. Like any competent economist, I’m well-aware of these demonstrations. But give me this morning the services of a clever graduate student and I’ll give you this afternoon a large notebook full of theoretical demonstrations of how government can restrict men’s trade with women in ways that enrich men as a whole. (Indeed, I can promise demonstrations of how such restrictions on men’s trade with women will enrich both men as a whole and women as a whole.)

And give me a wise graduate student and I’ll give you economically air-tight arguments that such theoretical demonstrations are useless in reality.

Theoretical demonstrations of how government’s use of discretion to restrict trade might possibly enrich some select sub-group of people, or enrich even all people, are easy to concoct. Economically, however, these demonstrations are utterly unrealistic. And attempts to apply them in reality are ethically abhorrent.

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

Comments

Add a Comment    Share Share    Print    Email

Previous post:

Next post: