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.