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“Empirical” ≠ “Open”

Here’s a letter to a new visitor to Café Hayek:

Mr. Wilson:

Thanks for your e-mail defending what you call “common sense tariffs.”

You argue that it’s “an empirical question if a tariff would bring the desired result.” From this premise you infer that my “strong bias is not justified against all tariffs.”

I agree that, ultimately, the question of the effects of tariffs is empirical. But I submit that the empirical record against protective tariffs is so solid that it is sophistry to treat each new tariff proposal in isolation from this history. History is worthwhile because it gives us guidance going forward. If in the past every time you’ve bashed a hammer into your shin you got a huge bruise, surely it would be pedantic of you to proclaim that it’s “an empirical question” – as in “an open question” – whether or not you’ll get a bruise if you bash a hammer into your shin today.

Further, answering even empirical questions reliably is impossible without sound theoretical understanding. I repeat here a point that cannot be too often repeated: unlike informed proponents of free trade who have a coherent theory of how free trade elicits the knowledge that must be used if there is to be economic growth, proponents of protectionism offer no such coherent explanation of the operation of protectionism. Read Dani Rodrik or Ha-Joon Chang or Ian Fletcher or Oren Cass or Henry Olsen. You’ll find no coherent explanation of how government officials will acquire the knowledge necessary to intervene in ways that promote economic growth. Indeed, in the writings of most of these and other protectionists you won’t find even the recognition of the need for such an explanation. And that’s a sad empirical fact.

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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