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Protectionism Is An Affront to Non-Monetary Values

Here’s a letter to a new correspondent:

Mr. Y__:

Thanks for your e-mail.

After reading many of my posts at Café Hayek on trade, you “conclude that [I am] misguided on trade” because I – as you allege – “being an economist dismiss that people value more than just consumption.  Many people put intrinsic meaning on their jobs and don’t see these as just a way to get more spendable income.” Protectionism, you insist, “is a means of protecting workers’ enjoyment of the intrinsic value of their occupations.”

With respect, I don’t deny that many people put intrinsic meaning on their jobs and see their jobs as more than merely sources of maximum possible monetary income. Our economy is filled with workers who love their jobs so much that they’ve voluntarily taken lower pay in order to hold the particular jobs that they hold. I’m one such worker, as 30 years ago I turned down a lucrative job offer at a Washington, DC, law firm in order take a lower-paying job as a college professor. It’s a decision that I’ve never regretted. I get great satisfaction from teaching young adults; I also enjoy the leisure and intellectual stimulation that academic employment affords.

Among the great advantages of a growing market economy – an advantage that I sincerely applaud – is that it consistently expands worker Jones’s practical ability to sacrifice monetary income in favor of non-monetary amenities and values.

What I condemn is Jones forcing Smith and Williams to subsidize his consumption of non-monetary amenities and his pursuit of non-monetary values. Such unjust subsidization is exactly what is achieved by economic protectionism: Jones gets to keep his existing job at the expense of Smith and Williams, who thereby become less able to afford for themselves and their families not only material goods but also whatever non-monetary amenities and values that they desire.

As do most protectionists, I readily recognize that Jones likely attaches some non-monetary value to his current job. But unlike protectionists, I also believe that the person who should pay for this non-monetary value is Jones, for it is he who enjoys it. He can pay for it by offering to work at his current job at a lower wage. I oppose protectionism in part because it enables Jones to compel Smith and Williams to subsidize his consumption of non-monetary values (and, by the way, subsidize also his consumption of material goods and services).

Unless you can give me a good reason why Jones’s values are not only more important than are Smith’s and Williams’s values, but are so much more important that government is justified in forcing Smith and Williams to pay for Jones to enjoy his values, I will continue to oppose protectionism. My opposition, please note, is not merely or even mainly because protectionism is economically inefficient. My opposition comes chiefly from my own non-monetary value that holds that it is unjust to force some fellow citizens to subsidize the consumption and life-styles of other fellow citizens.

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