Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on February 27, 2021

in Hubris and humility, Other People's Money, Property Rights, Seen and Unseen, Subsidies, Trade

… is from page 57 of Frédéric Bastiat’s May 15th, 1848, article (for Le Journal des économistes), titled “Propriété et loi,” as this article is translated as “Property and Law” and appears in Volume 2 (“The Law,” “The State,” and Other Political Writings, 2012) of Liberty Fund’s The Collected Works of Frederic Bastiat (Jacques de Guenin and David M. Hart, eds.):

I repeat, we were asking for the abolition of the protectionist regime, not as a good government measure but as justice, as the achievement of freedom, as the rigorous consequence of a right that is higher than the law.

DBx: Yes. Ultimately, the case for free trade is a case for freedom. It is a case for people to be left free to peacefully spend their earned incomes as they choose rather than as how others choose – even if those others happen to have won the most recent political election, to occupy impressive faculty positions at elite universities, or to run think tanks that spit out papers expressing displeasure with the pattern of economic activity that arises from whatever freedom people currently possess to spend their own money as they choose.

When the U.S. president, to protect the jobs of American steel workers, calls for tariffs on Americans’ purchases of foreign steel, he is calling on the government to force you (if you are an American) and other ordinary Americans to subsidize particular workers’ desires not to have to find different employment or to take a cut in wages. He is calling on the government to diminish your ability to as fully as possible satisfy your peaceful desires in order to increase other people’s ability to better satisfy their desires – for these other people to live partly on your dime. He is calling on the government to reduce your spending power in order to increase the spending power of some of your fellow citizens.

The above truth holds whether the president is named Biden, Trump, Obama, Bush, Washington, or Hardyharrharr.

When think-tank mavens call on the government to use protective tariffs and subsidies to alter the current pattern of economic activity, they are calling on the government to force you to subsidize their intellectual vision of what a better pattern of economic activity looks like.

Forget such people’s suffocating arrogance – arrogance revealed by their express belief that they somehow know that, say, the home-country economy should have more of these types of jobs and fewer of those types, or that there should be less concentration of economic activity in locations X,Y, and Z, and more economic activity in locations A, B, and C.

Forget such people’s ignorance of economics – ignorance revealed quite plainly in much of what they write and say about trade. (One among countless examples is Oren Cass’s failure to understand both the principle of comparative advantage and the uses economists make of their understanding of it.)

Forget such people’s refusal to recognize both the knowledge problem and the incentive problem that inevitably plague any attempt by government officials to use their coercive powers to alter commerce in ways that improve the overall economy, or even, in many cases, to achieve simply the observable economic patterns that ostensibly motivate the interventions.

Forget all of the above. Recognize, ultimately, that protectionists want to seize part of your income – they want the government to coercively separate you from part of the fruits of your work effort – in order to use it for purposes that they happen to cherish. Protectionists don’t respect you. They hold your rights in contempt. They fancy that they are better than you.

Protectionists might intend to make you more prosperous even though the results of their interventions will be to make you less prosperous. But protectionists also intend to make you less free. And this intention is one that their interventions unfailing succeed in fulfilling.


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