What is Free Trade?

The following is a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Edmund Miller argues that Dr Boudreaux misses the point of President Trump’s trade policy, that he is merely just using tariffs to get “free and fair” trade and zero tariffs.  Ignoring the fact President Trump has explicitly denied this is his goal at all (see, for example, his comments here and here), Mr Miller rather misses the point of free trade.

Free trade is nothing more than this: the observed outcomes that occur when people are free to make their own decisions.  Nothing more, nothing less.  By using his authority as the head of the executive branch of the US government to punish certain people for behaving in certain ways, President Trump is explicitly against free trade.  It may be “fair trade” (however we wish to define that), but it cannot be called free trade in the correct sense of the word.

Jon Murphy

Fairfax, VA

PS: see also Don’s response here

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…comes from pages 86-87 of Bruno Leoni’s 1961 work Freedom and the Law (3rd Edition, emphasis added):

Common citizens were the real actors in this respect [the formation of common law], just as they still are the real actors in the formation of the language and, at least partially, in economic transactions in the countries of the West.  The grammarians who epitomize the rules of a language or the statisticians who make records of prices or of quantities of goods exchanged in the market of a country could better be described as simple spectators of what is happening around them than as rulers of their fellow citizens as far as language or the economy is concerned.

JMM: The economist as a scientist is one who observes, records, and explains phenomena.  Our models and metrics work best when they are describing these outcomes.  To use them to be prescriptive fundamentally changes the nature of the being.  For example, to try to manipulate the price system to get higher wages (eg, a minimum wage) causes distortions: less labor is purchased, overall wages may drop, etc.  Tariffs, as a means to produce more profit for firms, lead to overall poverty.  It’s easy to boost some metric merely by monkeying about with its components.  But do not fall into the mistake of thinking that now higher metric is comparable to the metric one observed before.  GDP manipulated is not the same as GDP arisen from market transactions even though they superficially look the same.

The good economist, like the good jurist or the good grammarian or the good scientist, observes the world.  He does not try to impose his own viewpoints onto the data.  He is a discoverer of economic relations (or legal relations or grammatical relations etc), not a creator of one.

Somewhere along the line, this simple fact was lost.  Economists are all about “policy recommendations” now.  Optimal tariff this and carbon tax that.  They have ceased being economists and have become applied mathematicians.  Likewise, judges, lawyers, and legislators have ceased trying to discover the law (that the law is) and have moved toward telling us what the law should be.  As such, they have ceased being judges, lawyers, and legislators and moved into being commanders of humanity.  What they do can no longer be called law; it is a farce wearing the guise of law.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from page 15 of Bruno Leoni’s excellent 1961 work Freedom and the Law: (emphasis in original)


It seems to be unquestionable that we should, on this basis, reject the resort to legislation whenever it is used merely as a means of subjecting minorities in order to treat them as losers in the field. It seems also unquestionable that we should reject the legislative process whenever it is possible for the individuals involved to attain their objectives without depending upon the decision of a group and without actually constraining any other people to do what they would never do without constraint. Finally, it seems simply obvious that whenever any doubt arises about the advisability of the legislative process as compared with some other kind of process having for its object the determination of the rules of our behavior, the adoption of the legislative process ought to be the result of a very accurate assessment.

JMM: So often in the field of economic policymaking, little thought is given toward whether an action should be taken.  It’s trivially easy to come up with models that show, under certain circumstances, this or that policy can be enacted and it will resolve a market failure.  But little thought is given to whether these policy prescriptions are prudent.  There are no general maxims of economic policymaking that stand to guide actions; economists rarely discuss these matters deferring them to legislators, lawyers, or philosophers.  

But economists are in a unique position to advise precisely on those general maxims.  We built the models after all.  Our job is to explore the kinds of processes that lead to rules of our behavior, and they are more than just the legislative.  The economist who designs models without consideration to their prudence does a disservice to himself, his profession, and science as a whole.

Where’s Mine?

In my Econ 385 class on Tuesday (International Economic Policy), an excellent discussion on student loan debt came up.  One of my students asked the probing question: “Student debt is approaching $1.8 trillion.  Everyone seems to recognize this is a bubble.  Why is there so much resistance to student debt forgiveness?” 

I opened the discussion up to the class.  Lots of excellent, well-reasoned opinions were expressed.  Some argued that the schools have no incentives to keep their expenditures in check since the government is subsidizing the loans.  Some argued that the politicians do not bear the full costs of these loans, nor a default, so they have little incentive to address the issue.  Others noted that the banks would keep giving loans so long as they are backed by the government.  All of these are excellent points, which I’ll not rehash here (I wish I could take credit for teaching these students, but they were already smart before they came to my class).  

There is a larger issue I wanted to discuss, one which was not discussed in class (we were acting under the assumption, for the sake of the discussion, that forgiveness was the best option).  This issue is: who gets forgiven?

What is it about student loan debt that makes it worthy of being forgiven, but other forms of debt are not?  There’s credit card debt, housing debt, business debt, auto debt, etc.  All this debt can have the same effect as student loan debt.  True, student loan debt is larger than these other sources, but if that’s the case, that’s just an argument either for partial forgiveness, or for people to mount up other forms of debt.

If student loan debt is forgiven, the holders of the other forms of debt will wonder “why not me?  Where is mine?”  Indeed, recently a friend used exactly this line of reasoning when justifying tariffs for his own industry: “My competitors and suppliers get protection.  Why not me?”

This is the problem with most government handout programs.  Those that are designed to help a certain and arbitrary group can compel members of the out-group to seek their own rents.  If student loan debt is forgiven, business owners might lobby to have their debt forgiven (“I’m creating jobs!  if my debt is forgiven, then I can create more jobs!”).  Or automobile owners (“My car lets me get to my job!”).  Anyone could come up with various excuses.  

This rent seeking, of course, then results in wasted resources.  Resources that could have gone to productive uses are now trying to capture rents.  And there are other issues as well that I’ll not touch on here: the sanctity of contracts (will it become harder for people to get loans since the value of a loan contract will be reduced?), moral hazard problems (will former debtors seek even more debt since their previous amount was forgiven?).  These are all important issues to consider.

Expert Failure to Communicate

On Friday, Roger Koppl of Syracuse University presented his book Expert Failure at the Invisible Hand Seminar co-sponsored by George Mason University and the Institute for Humane Studies.  

The thrust of Dr. Koppl’s book is that, similar to market and government failure, experts can fail in their task as well.  Experts can give poor advice, he influenced by known or unknown biases, and react to incentives just like the rest of us.  An expert, for the purposes of this discussion, is anyone paid for their opinion (this is how Koppl defines expert in his book).

There is another aspect of expert failure which plays into the problem and that is a failure to communicate.*  Even if an expert does everything perfectly, if s/he cannot adequately communicate their message to the decision-maker, then expert failure can still result.  

This expert failure to communicate is a major issue in law & economics.  Economists are trained in statistics and empirical methods.  Lawyers and judges may not and juries almost certainly are not. In his 2009 textbook, Basic Concepts of Probability and Statistics in the Law, Columbia law professor Michael Finkelstein gives two examples were ambiguous wording by experts and misinterpretation of probabilities by juries led to false convictions (see pages 3-5).  These failures can lead to pro-prosecution bias in juries (or, alternatively, pro-defendant bias if other statistical fallacies are made).  In the two legal cases above, the convictions were overturned on appeal, but one has to worry about the error rate given the already confusing nature of statistical wording and hypothesis testing. 

In Expert Failure, Koppl discusses increased competition among experts as a means for solving expert failure.  A good expert can explain his argument in common-language and not necessarily hide behind jargon.  Competition between experts may indeed reduce this expert failure to communicate, but it ultimately rests on the head of the decision maker.  And indeed the more complicated a topic is, the more the reliance on expert opinion is needed, which increases the likelihood of expert failure to communicate.  

Ultimately, I think this all adds up to a rather strong presumption of liberty.  The more control experts have over our lives, the more likely it is for expert failure to occur.  Indeed, some of these highly complex functions, like contract issues or tort issues, may be best left to arbitrators rather than judges.  The more complex an issue is, the less one would want to centralize it.  

*Full disclosure: this point may come up in the book.  I have not read it, having ordered it shortly after the seminar

Division of Labor Allows High-Productivity People to be Highly Productive

Commenting on this post at Cafe Hayek, Marisol Regalado Aguilar writes:

I’ve never understood why some many pundits think the government should admit only high-skilled immigrants. We need fruit pickers and floor cleaners, too.

Marisol makes an important point.  There are always jobs that need to be done.  By dividing labor, it allows people to specialize in what they are comparatively best at.  For every janitor or fruit picker imported (that is, low-skilled immigration), it allows doctors and factory workers to focus on their jobs.  In other words, highly productive people are only highly productive because low productivity people do low productivity jobs.

Despite the fears, the division of labor does not reduce wages but rather increase them.  It allows people to focus, become more productive, and thus increase their marginal output and increase their wages.  Low skilled immigration serves precisely this function.

Consider the following: a doctor’s office has basic janitorial needs: trash emptied, rooms sanitized, basic upkeep, etc.  If the doctor cannot hire someone to do that, either because they are not available or he’d have to pay higher wages to lure them away from other jobs and he cannot afford to do so, then he’d have to do the work himself.  That’d necessarily mean he has less time to see patients, do research, or whatever he does to be highly productive.  The doctor would have to become lowly productive.

Restricting immigration to just high skilled workers will not result in increased productivity in the nation.  If anything, it’ll result in lower productivity, and thus lower wages.

Obsolescence: Economic and Technical

The language of economists is often fraught with confusion for a simple reason: we use common words and use them in a precise manner that is different from what many people think.  We inherited a language and our words don’t quite fit into others mouths easily.

One such word is “obsolescence.”  People tend to think of “obsolescence” in a technical sense, that is as something that is old and thus no longer needed.  The horse and buggy was made obsolete by the automobile.

Economists think of the term in a different manner, that is to describe a method of acting that is no longer economically practical given the change in costs/benefits.  This may include adopting a new technology, but it may not.  By way of example, consider the following: why do some people still take the train when we can fly everywhere?  In a technical sense, the airplane has made the passenger train obsolete.  But people still ride the train because the costs of riding are lower than the benefits of riding versus the same calculus of flying.  For some people, the act of flying is obsolete.

Ian Fletcher makes this very mistake in responding to Pierre Lemieux’s new monograph What’s Wrong with Protectionism?  Fletcher writes:

You [Lemieux] attack a protectionist straw man. For example, contrary to what you [Lemieux] say on page 48, reasonable opponents of unilateral free trade do not advocate protecting “obsolete manufacturing.”

Fletcher is confusing technical and economic obsolescence.  Protectionists do indeed advocate protecting obsolete manufacturing; they are obsolete in that they are no longer serving people’s needs since people are now choosing imported products.  If this were not the case, then protectionism would not be needed.  These firms might be at the top of the tech world, but that does not mean they are successfully serving a need.  To protect them is indeed to protect an obsolete industry.