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An Open Letter to David Autor

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Prof. David Autor
Department of Economics
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA

Prof. Autor:

I applaud much of the work that you do. But I’m befuddled by a comment that Michael Hirsh quotes you here [2] as making; it’s made in the context of a discussion of how increased international trade has harmed some American workers. According to Hirsh, you said about economists’ understanding of international trade that “One could say that there was something of a guild orthodoxy: The key dictum was that policymakers should be told that trade was good for everyone in all places and times.”

Hmmm. I’ve studied the economics of trade for decades and have never encountered an economist who recommended that such advice be offered to policymakers. Even the most staunch defenders of free trade – scholars such as Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Henry George, Edwin Cannan, Gottfried Haberler, Fritz Machlup, Milton Friedman, Leland Yeager, William Allen, Walter Williams, Jagdish Bhagwati, Deirdre McCloskey, Arvind Panagariya, Russell Roberts, Douglas Irwin, and (before his metamorphosis) Paul Krugman – have always and often been explicit and clear that economic change brought about by more trade destroys some jobs (and thus causes some losses) no less than does economic change brought about by technological innovation or any other source.

Nor do I recall any of these scholars advising that this reality be hidden from policymakers. Such advice would be crazy-odd, given how explicit each of these scholars have been about the fact that trade does indeed destroy particular jobs and that some workers often have a difficult time finding comparable new jobs.

But I’m always open to learning. I’d very much appreciate your sharing with me evidence of professional economists who are known for their general support of free trade advocating that policymakers be fed the line that trade “was good for everyone in all places and times.”

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

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