Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

October 30, 2005

Free Trade and Trinkets

Filed under: — Different River @ 12:50 pm

Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek notes that one popular argument against free trade is not only in error from an economic standpoint, but it doesn’t even make any sense:

A rhetoric strategy used by opponents of free trade is to describe the things that domestic consumers buy from abroad as superfluities — cheap, pathetic, contemptible indulgences that consumers selfishly gobble up from foreign producers and, in the process, damage the domestic economy.

I first noticed this strategy in early 2001 when I heard Patrick Buchanan speak at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Buchanan criticized free traders who, in his view, are content to see the U.S. economy destroyed by policies whose only ‘benefit’ is to allow American consumers to buy self-indulgent, unnecessary gadgets “down at the mall.”

[Two other similar examples]

If it were true that American imports indeed are mostly low-value, insignificant, contemptible knick-knacks, then this fact would imply that the American industries destroyed by foreign competition are those that compete with such foreign producers — that is, American industries that produce baubles, trinkets, and T-shirts.

If protectionists such as Patrick Buchanan and Lou Dobbs dismiss as worthless the things that American consumers buy from foreigners, consistency demands that these pundits also dismiss as worthless the things that American industry would be prompted to produce by higher tariffs and other protectionist measures.

These protectionists certainly should not be permitted to get away with suggesting that protectionism would create domestic industries and jobs that produce worthwhile, cutting-edge goods and services. Instead, these protectionists should be forced to admit explicitly that the American industries they seek to reinvigorate are those that produce worthless baubles, trinkets, and T-shirts.

I sometimes wonder if opponents of free trade really want to prevent foreigners from having jobs so intensely that they are willing to impoverish Americans to accomplish that goal — or if they’re just really, really ignorant.

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