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Imports, As Such, Destroy No Jobs

Here’s a follow-up note to a recent correspondent:

Mr. B__:

Thanks for your follow-up to my recent note critical of Dani Rodrik’s take on trade.

You write that I “don’t appreciate that workers validly feel more nervousness and anger when the jobs they lose are to foreign goods than when they lose jobs to their fellow Americans who do things like introduce new technology or choose to shop online than at malls.”

If workers feel this way, it’s likely because the general public is constantly fed the fib that international trade is a categorically distinct, especially large, and uniquely disruptive source of economic change and job destruction. Yet it isn’t. In a country as large and as dynamic as the U.S., job losses directly connected to trade are a very small portion of the job losses that routinely occur.

One role of the economist is to reveal such realities rather than to pretend that such misapprehensions are valid.

But there’s a deeper point: Jobs lost to imports are lost because of decisions made by fellow citizens no less than are the jobs that are lost when fellow citizens, say, choose to increase their online shopping and decrease their shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. It’s commonplace to say that “jobs are destroyed by imports,” that “international trade destroyed this or that industry,” and that “foreigners are stealing our jobs.” But this language is highly misleading.

Imports, as such, don’t destroy any particular jobs in America; those particular jobs are destroyed by fellow Americans choosing to buy imports. International trade destroys no American industries; industrial decline blamed on trade is caused by fellow Americans choosing to buy more imports. Foreigners never “steal” jobs – not only because a job isn’t a piece of property, but also because all such job losses occur only because fellow Americans choose to change their spending patterns.

If you’re okay with economic change and the loss of particular jobs caused by the decisions made by fellow Americans, then you should be okay with economic change and the loss of particular jobs that arise when Americans buy more imports. Such job losses are caused by fellow Americans.

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