Thursday, October 20, 2016

On the Right to Buy Tomatoes from a Farmer in Mexico

Bret Wallach
Mr. Wallach:
I close my recent “Elemental Case for Free Trade” with the following ethical argument: “if you work and earn income honestly, that income is yours to use as you choose.  You may use it to buy tomatoes from your neighbor or to buy tomatoes from a farmer in Mexico.  It’s your money.  It belongs neither to the state nor to any domestic producer.  Yet protectionist arguments rest on the premise that your tomato-growing neighbor has some positive claim on your income.  If you are prohibited from buying tomatoes from Mexico, or – more commonly today – penalized with a tariff for doing so, the state is insisting that domestic tomato growers have an ethical claim on part of your income.”
You disagree with my argument.  That is, you apparently believe that the state acts ethically if, in its efforts to increase sales made by existing domestic tomato growers, it penalizes you for using your own income to buy foreign-grown tomatoes.  Do you, then, also believe that the state would be acting ethically if, in its efforts to increase sales made by those same domestic tomato growers, it penalized you for using your own income to buy potting soil, fertilizer, and tomato seeds that you use to grow your own tomatoes?
If you believe that there’s nothing ethically objectionable about Uncle Sam penalizing you for spending your income in ways that cause the sales of some domestic producers to be lower than otherwise, surely you then have no objection to Uncle Sam penalizing you for growing your own tomatoes.  Nor must you object if Uncle Sam were to penalize you and other Americans for buying used rather than new cars (or, indeed, for putting off buying new cars by keeping your existing cars in good repair) – or for buying previously owned rather than newly build homes – or for growing beards rather than shaving daily (think of all the sales that Gillette loses because more men today wear facial hair!) – or for recycling aluminum cans and plastic cartons – or, indeed, for doing anything with your own resources that Uncle Sam judges to wrongfully reduce sales made by its favored domestic producers.
Do you, in short, believe that you have an ethical right to grow your own tomatoes with your own resources if you choose – a right that trumps other tomato-growers’ insistence that you instead buy your tomatoes from them?  If so, how do you square this belief with your insistence that it is ethically acceptable for the state to penalize you and others for spending parts your incomes on the purchase of imports?
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
The above originally appeared at Cafe Hayek.


  1. I have a quibble regarding Boudreaux's hypothetical. In reality you don't buy anything from a quaint and noble Mexican farmer or an American one for that matter. The apocryphal tomatoes are usually produced by a corporate agriculture conglomerate that spends huge amounts of money buying politicians, avoiding competition and desperately seeking subsidies paid for by the customers they exploit via a thoroughly corrupt political system in both countries.

  2. Donald J. Boudreaux

    North Korea. If I would like to purchase product
    from North Korea, because it is made less expensively
    where I know the dictator Kim Jong-un
    has enslaved his people, and I know the dictator shall
    steal all of the profit and his workers are in some cases
    starving to death.

    This is my right to trade with North Korea. Because it is less expensive
    to me and I benefit ?


  3. Dyspeptic and alexaisback2: clearly, your questions must rest on the idea that there is a prior claim on wealth. Whether this prior claim rests upon the presumption that wealth is not really the result of production or else is rooted in some other rationale for entitlement is open to question, but it is obvious that your position must rest on the presumption that there IS some prior claim. That's what Boudreaux is asking, and as much as you have tried to evade answering that question, your "quibbling" has answered it in the affirmative.

  4. .
    .Montecristo here is the exact quote: " if you work and earn income honestly, that income is yours to use as you choose. You may use it to buy tomatoes from your neighbor or to buy tomatoes from a farmer in Mexico. It’s your money. "

    So why not substitute Mexico with North Korea ?

    You see, in a perfect world free trade is nice
    but look at reality. Try looking at real life examples.

    Look at Europe and the EU free trade. The supposed 4 freedoms
    The free movement of goods.
    The free movement of services and freedom of establishment.
    The free movement of persons (and citizenship), including free movement of workers.
    The free movement of capital.

    WHAT HAPPENED - it is an absolute joke, there is principle and then there
    is actual trade and NONE of the four freedoms are in actual practice.

    Europe is a complete mess, from migration/illegal immigration to rape to crime
    to rules and regulations

    Germany’s Apprenticeship System Comes Under Attack
    Thicket of rules and standards, rooted in medieval guilds, may stymie investment in services sector
    By TOM FAIRLESS Wall Street Journal

    " After 18 months of study, $2,200 in tuition and three exams, Ewa Feix is now permitted by German law to bake two variations of cupcakes.

    “Not pretzels, not Black Forest g√Ęteau, not bread,” said Ms. Feix, a Canadian who moved to Germany in 2009. Becoming a professional bread baker entails a three-year apprenticeship and more exams. "

    This is silliness. The practical fact is you cannot trade freely
    with North Korea nor anywhere else, its a fools errand.

    1. The example you've given here boggles the mind. Many of the architects may have spoken the words "free trade" out of their "public position" mouths, but when you look at what was implemented, even openly advocated, in some places, what the European Union actually is is a vast bureaucracy of managed trade. The European Union is a very poor example to cite for free trade. Brussels is nothing more than a vast Gordian Knot of tangled pull peddling, rent-seeking, and involuntary i.e. unfree, transaction bartering by entrenched interests. It isn't a free market; it's a market grotesquely warped by politics rooted in the idea that the bureaucrats have first claim on wealth they did not themselves produce. My observation also still apparently stands: what you're endorsing is the idea that someone, somewhere, somehow has a prior claim on wealth produced by others. If it is your position, alexaisback2, I will credit you for saying or believing that this is merely the "inevitable case," and not the desirable one, but if that is what you are saying you're not addressing Boudreaux's question. The fact of plunder does not justify it.