Straw men are famously frail. Immobile and brainless, they pose no threat to their opponents, who easily massacre them. Yet despite the unfairness of these battles – for straw men are always magnificently out-matched – slayers of straw men habitually pose as intrepid marksmen using their unique skills with the pen (or keyboard) to save humanity from the depredations that it would otherwise suffer at the hands of the now thankfully dead men of straw.
Few groups of policy pundits boast as many straw men slayers as does
that of protectionists. Indeed, protectionists likely hold several world
records for the number and variety of straw men whom they mow down and
the frequency with which they perform this mowing.
Presented below is a list of only some of the more commonplace straw
men who would put humanity in peril were it not for their courageous
protectionist assassins. Immediately after each straw man is a
correction of the record.
Straw Man: Free trade is cynically imposed on the country at the behest of soulless and greedy corporations.
Fact: Free trade is naturally what exists when
government refrains from bestowing special privileges on domestic
producers. A government no more “imposes” free trade on its citizens by
refraining from taxing and subsidizing their commerce with foreigners
than it imposes freedom of movement on its citizens by refraining from
shackling them with leg irons.
Furthermore, what greedy corporations want is not free trade at home
for the products they sell, but protectionism. Because free trade
intensifies the competitive pressures under which corporations operate,
greedy corporate owners and managers seek, not free trade, but tariffs
and other forms of protection from competition.
You show me a tariff, and I’ll show you a domestic company that lobbied for it.
Straw Man: Free trade is officiously imposed on the country by out-of-touch and arrogant elites.
Fact: This straw man is today, like the populists who frantically fight it, multiplying like Tribbles. Yet it’s doubly preposterous.
First, free trade is simply a condition of freedom for all people –
including, of course, for all ordinary man and woman – to choose to
purchase imports, and not to have their tax dollars used to subsidize
exports. Elites who impose their vision of society on others butt into
the affairs of those whom they seek to control. Arrogant and officious
elites do not leave ordinary people free to do whatever ordinary people
peacefully choose to do – which is to say, such elites oppose a policy
of free trade and the principles that support it.
Second, what is elitist – by its very nature – is
protectionism. It is the protectionist, not the free trader, who
obstructs the spending choices of ordinary people. It is the
protectionist, not the free trader, who not only claims to have divined
the knowledge of what are ‘the industries of the future,’ but who is so
arrogantly confident in his prophecy that he feels entitled to force
others to act as he commands.
Protectionists, of course, often peddle their schemes under the
banner of helping to protect the masses from the pretensions of elites.
But the fraudulence of this advertising is immediately exposed upon
realizing that it is protectionists, not free traders, who presume to
superintend and override the peaceful commercial choices of ordinary men
Straw Man: The economic theory that
supports the case for a policy of free trade assumes perfect knowledge,
perfect mobility of labor and capital within the home country, perfect
immobility of capital between countries, absence of market distortions
at home and abroad, and [fill in this blank with whatever other
assumptions, from the sensible to the silly, that might occur to you].
Fact: While economists over the centuries have
theorized about international trade using a variety of simplifying
assumptions, almost all of these assumptions are meant only to focus
attention on the particular features of trade that happen to be under
consideration at the moment. The realism of these assumptions is not
necessary for a policy of unilateral free trade to be economically
For example, when I introduce my undergraduate students to the principle of comparative advantage,
the particular feature that I wish to demonstrate is that a person’s
(or a firm’s, or a country’s) technical superiority at performing some
productive task does not necessarily mean that that entity is the
superior producer economically. To make this demonstration as clear as possible I make a large number of unrealistic assumptions.
Among these assumptions is that the existing pattern of comparative
advantage – that is, the various quantities that are possible for each
of the entities in my example to physically produce – remains unchanged.
Yet this assumption is necessary neither for the principle of
comparative advantage to hold in reality, nor for a policy of free trade
to work in reality.
Those who are guilty of relying on the realism of whackadoodle
assumptions are protectionists. It is protectionism, not free trade,
that requires for its success the possession by real-world individuals –
namely, government officials who impose tariffs and dispense subsidies –
of unrealistically vast amounts of knowledge. It is protectionism, not
free trade, that works only under other similarly bizarro scenarios,
such as that the largesse made available in the home country by
subsidies doled out by foreign governments to their exporters somehow
causes the total amount of goods and services available at home to fall
by an amount in excess of the benefit received at home from the foreign
In short, if you’re looking for a policy that works only if zanily unrealistic assumptions happen to hold, look no further than protectionism. You’ll find that free trade is not such a policy – and that anyone who alleges otherwise is, as William Buckley said of John Kenneth Galbraith, “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men.”
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY POSTED HERE.