Monday, June 5, 2017

The Laziest Argument Against Free Trade, Ever

A Don Boudreaux letter to a correspondent:

Mr. McKinney:

You repeat what is perhaps the lamest (and what is certainly the laziest) argument against free trade – namely, that “the case for free trade assumes other countries practice it.”

In fact, the case for free trade rests upon no such assumption.  While all sound economists recognize that the more widespread is the freedom to trade the more prosperous are ordinary people within each trading nation, these economists recognize also that any government that restricts its citizens’ freedom to trade makes its citizens poorer regardless of how free or fettered is trade in other countries.

Suppose that you learn that the barber who regularly cuts your hair is married to a woman who demands that he personally mow his own lawn.  Your barber confesses to you that he’d much prefer to hire a lawn-care service to perform this task.  Indeed, your barber explains that the money he saves by mowing his own lawn is less than the extra income he’d earn by instead using his lawn-mowing time to cut hair.  But fearing his wife’s displeasure, he mows his lawn himself.

Upon learning of this restriction on your barber’s freedom to trade outside of his household, do you conclude that you should therefore stop buying haircuts from him?  Do you believe that, because he’s not free to import lawn-care services into his household, that you would improve your economic well-being by stopping yourself from importing this barber’s hair-cutting services into your household?  If you find the quality and price of this barber’s services attractive (as you obviously do), what do you care how much or how little he and his wife ‘choose’ to import into their household?  Surely you must see that if you stop buying haircuts from this barber because he isn’t free to buy lawn-care services, you would damage yourself economically.

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. It's always a pleasure to read Boudreaux demolishing lame economic arguments. He invariably comes up with simple examples to illustrate what otherwise might seem confusing, abstract principles.

    1. Love DBx's writing, but it's really depressing that he actually needs to make points like this. Mercantilism was demolished going on 300 years ago and yet people still make the exact same Neanderthal protectionist arguments. Sometimes it even feels like we're going backwards.

      Modern physicists generally don't have to fend off waves of geocentrists and flat-earthers, but sadly it seems economists still do.

    2. We ARE going backward, if you compare the U.S. government's relatively laissez-faire approach in the 19th Century with today's micromanage-everything monstrosity. With the rise of the Internet and the efforts of people like RW and Boudreaux, we can at least hope to turn things around again. There is real desperation being exhibited by the control-freaks in government (and their drivers outside government), which is a hopeful sign, I think.

    3. Nationalism is a hell of a drug