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Protected Workers Work In Unproductive Jobs

Here’s a letter to a frequent correspondent:

Mr. Dye:

You argue that the “terminal flaw” of my letter (to American Compass’s Wells King) is that I “overlook that workers protected with tariffs manufacture output which people willingly buy.” I am, you therefore reckon, mistaken to insist that workers protected by tariffs work in unproductive jobs.


Suppose I point a gun at your head and demand from you $10,000 for every economics course that you or your children take at any school other George Mason University. As I wave my weapon I proclaim in all sincerity that economics taught at GMU is generally superior to economics taught elsewhere but that, without more enrollment, GMU Econ might nevertheless disappear. My punitive tariff on you, you see, is for the greater good. Further suppose – not unreasonably, given my threat of violence – that you and your children enroll in more classes taught by me and my GMU Econ colleagues.

Would you infer from your and your children’s increased enrollment in GMU Econ courses that my colleagues and I deserve to be described as productive economics professors who produce outputs that you “willingly buy”? And would you conclude that my colleagues and I, being protected from the competition of economics departments inferior to our own, would thereby up our game at teaching economics?

Of course not. You’d see my threat of violence for what it is: thuggery. And you’d have many good reasons to describe us as unproductive. Productive workers don’t need threats of violence to drum up demand for their outputs.

Your note, Mr. Dye, prompts me to a conclusion even stronger than the one that I expressed in my letter of yesterday: protecting jobs with tariffs is worse than government cutting unemployment checks to workers displaced from particular jobs by imports. Precisely because people who remain in tariff-protected jobs are less likely than are workers who receive unemployment checks from the state to realize that they are living at the expense of others, it’s better – because it’s more honest – for government to send money to unemployed workers than to resort to protectionism to keep these workers wastefully employed.

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