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When are We Free To Choose?

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Here’s a letter to a rising college junior who describes himself as a “friendly skeptic of neoliberalism”:

Mr. Martinez:

Thanks for your e-mail. It’s very kind.

You’re correct that I oppose trade restrictions, but incorrect to infer that I therefore “oppose letting the people choose their economic course.”

With free trade, people’s scope to make economic choices is at a maximum. With free trade each individual gets to choose, without condition, to purchase, or not, whatever is offered. You can buy that imported car while I choose to buy the one made in Michigan. You don’t need my permission and I don’t need yours.

Free trade, experience leaves no doubt, increases people’s material prosperity. But its principal benefit is that it’s peaceful and enlightened. When trade is free each person respects the dignity and autonomy of others. Voluntary exchange reigns without any initiation of coercion. Free trade, root and branch, is civilized.

With protectionism, people’s scope to make economic choices is constricted. With protectionism, each person’s choice is obstructed by strangers – namely, government officials – who use threats of coercion to, at best, impose burdensome conditions on that choice or in some cases prohibit it altogether. Protectionism, at root, is barbarous even if its branches cast a lovely apparition.

I understand that you mean by “letting the people choose” letting today’s majority of voters impose restrictions on how they and the minority conduct their economic affairs. But this language is quite misleading. If I vote with the majority to prevent you from buying imports, I’m part of a group that shrinks your scope for choosing. Not content to myself refuse to buy imports, I arrogantly insist on compelling you to do same. I and some other of your fellow citizens refuse to let you choose your economic course.

Those who are guilty of opposing letting people choose their economic course are not free traders, but protectionists.

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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