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Challenging John Burtka to a Debate on Trade Policy

Here I challenge ISI President John Burtka to a public debate on trade policy.

Mr. John A. Burtka IV
President and CEO
Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Mr. Burtka:

Having read your economic case against free trade, published recently by Oren Cass’s organization, American Compass, I challenge you to a public debate. I’m open to suggestions on the precise wording of the proposition to be debated, but I have in mind something along these lines: “Protectionism Practiced by the U.S. Government Makes Americans Economically More Prosperous Than They Would Be Under a Policy of Free Trade.” (To be clear: I propose debating what you discussed in your essay, namely, the economic consequences of protectionism. We would not debate whether and to what extent protectionism might be prudent for national-security reasons.)

You would defend the proposition that protectionism is good economics. I would oppose it.

Because you’re obviously eloquent and seem to be quite confident in the veracity and power of your arguments against free trade, I trust that you’ll eagerly accept my invitation. But let me nevertheless sweeten my invitation by revealing to you here some of the arguments that, should you accept my invitation, I would use to make my case against protectionism and in support of free trade.

First, I would point out that you – at least in your American Compass essay – completely ignore the economic arguments against protectionism. Instead, your case for protectionism relies exclusively on the fallacy of mistaking historical correlations with causation. It’s true, as you note, that the American economy grew impressively during most of the 19thcentury even though for much of that century America had in place protective tariffs. It’s also true that many early American luminaries wrote documents and letters that reveal skepticism of free trade. And further, you’re correct to note that the American confederacy, despite being more committed than was the U.S. government to free trade, was a comparative economic weakling.

All true. Yet each of these realities, when examined carefully (such as has been done by Dartmouth economist Douglas Irwin in his monumental 2017 history of American trade policy, Clashing Over Commerce), fails as a reason to embrace protectionism.

Second, after explaining that government cannot use protectionist measures to strengthen some domestic industries without drawing resources away from – and, hence, weakening – other domestic industries, I would challenge you to tell me and the audience why government officials are to be trusted to know which particular industries are worth artificially promoting – and, hence, which particular industries are worth artificially damaging. I would also explain to the audience that economics has a well-developed theory that predicts that, when the home government follows a policy of free trade, resources in the home country are directed away from uses in which they are relatively less productive and toward uses in which they are relatively more productive. I would then share some empirical evidence in support of this economic prediction.

I would challenge you also to explain why you’re confident that government officials empowered to impose protective measures can be trusted to impose these measures in the public interest rather than in a manner influenced by special-interest groups. Let me here warn you that I would point out that, as documented by Doug Irwin in his above-mentioned definitive history of American trade policy, whenever in U.S. history special interests were in conflict over trade matters with the public interest, the former almost always prevailed over the latter.

The case for free trade is simple: Allow fellow citizens to spend their incomes in any peaceful ways they choose, and to do so irrespective of whatever trade policies are followed by foreign governments. Such a policy, I submit, is consistent in a way that protectionism is not with the liberty for which America’s founders risked their lives. But being an economist I would emphasize, not the consistency of free trade with liberty, but the positive and causal connection of free trade with economic growth and economic flourishing for the masses.

I’ll be happy to debate you pretty much any time after the New Year. (The Fall months are for me, as I’m sure they must be for you, already filled with obligations and deadlines.) If you’re game, please contact me and we can work out details, including the location, specific date, and, of course, the precise wording of the proposition to be debated.

I look forward to hearing from you and, hopefully, engaging with you in a civil debate on this important policy matter.

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