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The Way We Talk Matters

Nolan McKinney hasn’t written to me in a while:

Mr. McKinney:

In response to my recent letter to Thomas Hutcheson you write that I and other free traders “lose people when [we] call workers in protected sectors ‘wasteful’ and ‘drains’ on society.” You insist that we “free traders would get a better hearing if [we] spoke more respectfully about those workers, which are just as honest and hardworking as other workers.”

I disagree. Workers who are paid to produce particular outputs only because government artificially obstructs consumers’ ability to purchase different outputs are in wasteful jobs. The protectionism that sustains these jobs drains other people of net wealth. Workers in jobs that exist because of protectionism should feel ashamed, not dignified or on par with workers in non-protected industries. Contrary to the superficial appearance of being made by tariffs to be productive to their fellow citizens, these workers are instead enabled by tariffs to prey on their fellow citizens.

Protectionism, don’t forget, operates by credibly threatening to initiate coercion against people engaged in peaceful commerce.

Deirdre McCloskey observes that society’s civility and productiveness depend greatly on the way we talk and write. And so because workers in jobs protected by tariffs are, at bottom, robbing their fellow citizens, it’s imperative to describe these workers accurately. Accuracy of description reminds these workers, as well as the general public, of the true, ugly, and destructive nature of jobs sustained by protectionism.

Society would be largely rid of the scourge of protectionism if the typical worker would be as embarrassed to confess publicly to working in a protected industry as a burglar now is to confess publicly to his line of work.

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