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Again, Trade Is a Technique of Production

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:


Andrew Duehren reviews some of legal and political problems plaguing the Trump-Biden rejection of open global markets (“On TikTok and Steel, U.S. Retreats Further From Free-Trade Consensus,” March 16). Also worthy of mention is the economic ignorance that fuels this rejection. When Biden national security advisor Jake Sullivan complained, Mr. Duehren’s words, that “freewheeling global trade helped lower consumer prices, but at the expense of U.S. workers,” one wonders why we never hear Messrs. Sullivan and Biden (and Trump) complain about freewheeling innovation. After all, not only does innovation lower consumer prices, it regularly destroys far more particular jobs than does trade.* In a 2015 study (updated in 2017) economists Michael Hicks and Srikant Devaraj found that “almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth” rather than to imports.**

As the economist David Friedman points out, trade is a technique of production. We can produce, say, more steel here at home directly, or we can produce additional steel by growing more corn, put that corn into machines called “cargo ships,” and allow the cargo ships to transform that corn into steel that’s unloaded on our docks. Protectionists’ proposals to obstruct trade are proposals to obstruct the use of what are often the lowest-cost techniques of production. How such obstruction enriches the nation is anyone’s guess.

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

* Donald J. Boudreaux, “Trade Is Not a Job Killer,” New York Times, March 28, 2018.

** “The Myth and the Reality of Manufacturing in America,” Ball State University, April 2017.

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