Free Trade Lessons for the Economically Challenged

Yes, the would be trade war General Donald Trump is included in those that need these lessons. Whether he actually believes his own tirades against Mexico and China or whether he finds them politically astute given his blue collar base is beside the point, the lesson on the virtues of free trade are in constant need of defending – like a garden that is surrounded by malevolent spreading weeds that are aggressive but thoughtless.

This Neighborhood Tale from Cafe Hayek is one Orwellian dystopian view of the topic that asks the obvious question – why should government backed by freedom-hating voters decide what I get to consume and where I get my products from? Drawing the arbitrary consumption boundary to the United States is really no different philosophically and morally than drawing a consumption boundary around my neighborhood. When one paints it in this light, then the restrictions on individual liberty and punitive tariffs becomes quite the sophistry.

Another highly insightful and thought provoking entry on the topic comes from the American Enterprise Institute constructed video debate between Trump and Milton Friedman on the topic. Of course, Friedman having passed away some years ago we don’t get the pleasure of Friedman actually destroying Trump’s immature trade arguments in real time, but the artful creation of AEI does the job well enough.

A key phrase from Friedman in the video montage that I particularly enjoy (at the 2:00 minute mark) summarizes the topic of free trade quite well, “When I look at the legislation it always seems to me that the legislation is enacted to benefit a small group at the expense of the large group. Free trade is a way of benefiting a large group at the expense of the small group. But, politically, a small group always speaks with a bigger voice.”

Another common bogeyman of the protectionist is the trade deficit. To the protectionist, this is a pernicious sign of unfair trade practices. The problem with this simplistic view is an assumption that those dollars will exist in a permanent vacuum of no escape. Eventually, those dollars will have to be spent on something, which is most often re-invested back into the United States. Friedman also observes that trade surplus countries are often driven by the lack of savings opportunities in their own countries, driving them to invest in countries such as America where investment opportunities are better.

“When I look at the legislation it always seems to me that the legislation is enacted to benefit a small group at the expense of the large group. Free trade is a way of benefiting a large group at the expense of the small group. But, politically, a small group always speaks with a bigger voice.” – Milton Friedman

Another brilliant quote that I want to call out is when Friedman uses a quote (7:35 minute mark) from the classical American economist Henry George (circa 1890) that, “It’s a very interesting thing that in times of war, we blockade our enemies in order to prevent them from getting goods from us. In time of peace we do to ourselves by tariffs what we do to our enemy in time of war.”

AEI provides a fuller version of Henry George’s arguments on the inanity of protectionist policies in their text, which I have copied below. I find the similarities between Trump’s proposed 45% tariff and the 47% tariff of George’s day that President Grover Cleveland was attempting to lower an amazing coincidence.

Trade is not invasion. It does not involve aggression on one side and resistance on the other, but mutual consent and gratification. There cannot be a trade unless the parties to it agree, any more than there can be a quarrel unless the parties to it differ. England, we say, forced trade with the outside world upon China, and the United States upon Japan. But, in both cases, what was done was not to force the people to trade, but to force their governments to let them. If the people had not wanted to trade, the opening of the ports would have been useless.

Civilized nations, however, do not use their armies and fleets to open one another’s ports to trade. What they use their armies and fleets for, is, when they quarrel, to close one another’s ports. And their effort then is to prevent the carrying in of things even more than the bringing out of things—importing rather than exporting. For a people can be more quickly injured by preventing them from getting things than by preventing them from sending things away. Trade does not require force. Free trade consists simply in letting people buy and sell as they want to buy and sell. It is protection that requires force, for it consists in preventing people from doing what they want to do. Protective tariffs are as much applications of force as are blockading squadrons, and their object is the same—to prevent trade.The difference between the two is that blockading squadrons are a means whereby nations seek to prevent their enemies from trading; protective tariffs are a means whereby nations attempt to prevent their own people from trading. What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.

Can there be any greater misuse of language than to apply to commerce terms suggesting strife, and to talk of one nation invading, deluging, overwhelming or inundating another with goods? Goods! what are they but good things—things we are all glad to get? Is it not preposterous to talk of one nation forcing its good things upon another nation? Who individually would wish to be preserved from such invasion? Who would object to being inundated with all the dress goods his wife and daughters could want; deluged with a horse and buggy; overwhelmed with clothing, with groceries, with good cigars, fine pictures, or anything else that has value? And who would take it kindly if any one should assume to protect him by driving off those who wanted to bring him such things?

 

 

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