Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on June 29, 2020

in Education, Seen and Unseen, Trade

… is from page 127 of Liberty Fund’s 2011 collection of Frédéric Bastiat’s writings, The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics – which is the first volume of what will eventually be six volumes, expertly edited by David Hart, of The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat; specifically, this quotation is drawn from Bastiat’s April 20th, 1847, letter to Richard Cobden (original emphasis):

I have no need to tell you how much I share your views on the political results of free trade. We are being accused within the democratic and socialist party of being devoted to the cult of material interests and of bringing everything down to questions of wealth. I must admit that when it concerns the masses I do not share this stoic disdain for wealth. This word does not mean having a few écus more; it means bread for those who are hungry, clothing for those who are cold, education, independence, and dignity. But after all, if the sole result of free trade were to increase public wealth I would not spend any more time on it than on any other matter relating to agriculture or industry. What I see above all in our campaigning is the opportunity to confront a few prejudices and to have a few just ideas penetrate the consciousness of the general public. This is an indirect benefit that outweighs the direct benefits of free trade a hundredfold, and if we are experiencing so many obstacles in spreading our economic argument, I believe that providence has put these obstacles in our path precisely so that the indirect benefits can be felt.

DBx: To reject, on economic grounds, the case for free trade across political borders is to reject the case for free trade of any sort. The same (il)logic and sophistry that protectionists use to try to convince you that you and your neighbors will be damaged economically if you and your neighbors are not obstructed by government officials from trading as you see fit with persons across the ocean would, were it valid, justify government-imposed obstructions on your trade with persons living next door, across the street, and around the block.

Protectionists hoot and ridicule this reductio ad absurdum. “Don’t be absurd! Trading with fellow citizens is economically very different from trading with foreigners!” – so assert protectionists.

But when you ask “How?” – when you ask for an explanation of why voluntary commerce across a political border is likely to inflict economic damage that will not be inflicted by voluntary commerce across a town or county or province or state border – you are barraged with assertions of fallacies, half-truths, and downright ignorance. What you never get is a valid explanation.

Economists from Adam Smith through William Graham Sumner and Edwin Cannan onto Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya, Russ Roberts, Dan Griswold, and Doug Irwin – to name only a few – have debunked each of the many fallacies raised by protectionists. “What if foreigners get a monopoly in supplying this good?!” “What if foreigners keep their prices artificially high?!” “What if foreigners keep their prices artificially low?!” “How can we compete with low-wage workers?!” “How can we compete if our government-imposed regulations are so onerous and our taxes so high?!” “How can we ensure that we have the best industries without government consciously arranging that outcome?!” “The economic theory in support of free trade is unrealistic!” “How would you like to lose a job to imports, huh?!!” “Didn’t America have high tariffs in the 19th century?!” “If we commit to never using protectionist measures, how can we pressure foreigners to make their trade freer?!” “Even Adam Smith agreed that free trade isn’t always the best policy!” “How can we keep running trade deficits year after year after year?!” “Free trade will weaken our national defense!”

Each of these, and other, arguments against a policy of unilateral free trade has been addressed in detail countless times. Each has been repeatedly debunked as a reason not to follow unilaterally a policy of free trade. Much of this blog has been, and will continue to be, devoted to such debunking. But no one person was ever as brilliant and as tireless in making the case for free trade as was Frédéric Bastiat – who was born 219 years ago today.


See Mark Perry’s tribute.


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