In his early career, Mises was a vocal supporter of the free trade movement, and well involved in the policy proposals of the free trade associations in Europe. In his later years, he maintained his pure laissez-faire view of international trade, but focused more on the battle of ideas. Although scattered throughout his other works, and not collected in a volume on ‘international economics’, his analyses on trade and trade policy are meticulous and detailed, but clear-cut, as well as indispensable to a correct understanding of international production and exchange.
For those reading the recent news on the escalation of protectionist measures between the U.S. and its trade partners, here’s an excerpt from Mises’s Epistemological Problems of Economics (pp. 237-9). The discussion is fully applicable today, 85 years after it was first published. In a short subchapter, Mises (to use one of his favorite expressions) explodes the fallacy of the infant industry argument for trade protection, and employs an original and often neglected argument that highlights the role of monetary calculation and inconvertible capital goods in production and trade.
The infant industries argument advanced in favor of protective tariffs represents a hopeless attempt to justify such measures on a purely economic basis, without regard to political considerations. It is a grievous error to fail to recognize the political motivation behind the demand for tariffs on behalf of infant industries. The same arguments as are advanced in favor of protecting a domestic product against foreign competition could also be adduced in favor of protecting one part of a general customs area against the competition of other parts. The fact that, nevertheless, protection is asked only against foreign, but not also against domestic, competition clearly points to the real nature of the motives behind the demand.
Of course, it may happen in some cases that the industry already in existence is not operating in the most favorable of the locations that are presently accessible. However, the question is whether moving to the more favorable location offers advantages great enough to compensate for the cost of abandoning the already existing plants. If the advantages are great enough, then moving is profitable and is carried out without the intervention of a tariff policy. If it is not profitable in itself and becomes so only by virtue of the tariff, then the latter has led to the expenditure of capital goods for the construction of plants that would otherwise not have been constructed. These capital goods are now no longer available where they would have been had the state not intervened.
Every tariff under whose protection new plants come into existence that otherwise would not have been built so long as the older plants established elsewhere were still utilizable leads to the squandering of capital. Of course, the fanatics on both sides of the ocean who want to “make the economy rational” do not care to see this.
This article originally posted here.