Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is from page 147 of the excellent new book Arguments for Liberty (edited by Aaron Ross Powell and Grant Babcock).  This quote comes from the essay on Contractarianism by Jan Narveson (original emphasis):

Liberalism is exemplified by normative systems that hold two points: (a) that the sole acceptable purpose of rules, laws, and in general interventions must be the good of those intervened upon; and (b) that it is those persons themselves, rather than any supposed authorities, who fundamentally embrace those values.  Individuals, then, are the basic holders of the values that interventionist institutions and personages are to respect….Both are essential.  So-called liberals of the present day tend to think that they, the pundits or theorists or the elected politicians, know what people want better than the people themselves.

Sacrificing the Ends for the Means

Throughout his writing career, Frederic Bastiat repeatedly emphasized that consumption is the end goal of economic activity, that the consumer should be the focus of economic analysis.  While each man is both producer and consumer, man produces so he can consume.  In other words, production is the means and consumption is the ends.  This makes sense if we look at our own lives: we go to work so we can afford our homes, food, cars, clothes, etc.  We don’t consume our clothes, cars, food, homes, so that we can work more!

Although not considered much of a theorist, Bastiat was a bit ahead of his time with this emphasis.*  It would be another 50 years before the commonly-recognized supply and demand curve we use today was developed by Alfred Marshall.  Using the Marshallian Curve, we can explore Bastiat’s** insights with regard to international trade.

Let’s ask the question: what happens when we impose a tariff on international trade?

First, let’s start with our standard supply and demand curve:


The green-shaded areas are “consumer surplus,” or what the consumer gains from the international trade.  The orange is domestic producer surplus (what domestic producers gain).  Domestic producers supply some of the quantity demanded (Qs) and the rest is made up in imports (Qd-Qs).  The total societal surplus is the green and the orange areas added together.

What happens when we impose a tariff?  This:


Green is, as above, consumer surplus.  Orange is producer surplus.  Added in here is the blue area (tax revenue) and red (deadweight loss).  What’s going on here?  Much of what we have is a transfer of wealth: producers gain (from the consumer), government gains (from the consumer).  But where does the deadweight loss come from?  The consumer!  Not only is there a total reduction in welfare in the society (not merely a redistribution), but it all comes from one segment, the segment that is the ends of all production.  The entire welfare loss is borne by the consumer!  

The implications of this analysis are stunning, at least from an economic perspective: you reduce the ends to get more means; Protectionism results in more effort for less welfare!  The supposed blessings of scarcity that protectionism promises never materialize.

*Nor should Bastiat be considered a theorist.  He wasn’t.  He was a great distributor of economic ideas, but didn’t form any himself.

**And Say’s, Smith’s, and Ricardo’s

Warts and All

Yesterday was Opening Day for the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park in Washington, DC.  Some 40,000 people made their way to the Waterfront to see the Nationals take on the Miami Marlins.  At the corner of N and First Streets, SE, the traffic and pedestrian crossing was a nightmare.  People were flooding out from the Metro headed to the Park.  The crossing guards could barely keep order, and both cars and pedestrians were getting frustrated (this effort was compounded by the fact the traffic lights were still on, often contradicting the guards’ orders).  It was, in short, a charlie-foxtrot.  One might even say it was a government failure.

Although the government’s solution to the pedestrian issue was less-than-ideal, it would be incorrect to immediately jump to the conclusion that a laissez-faire approach would automatically be better; that a “free-market” approach would be better than the government approach.  The free-market approach would come with its own set of problems (perhaps, for example, since pedestrians have the right-of-way, tens of thousands of people would have crossed the streets and no car would have been able to move for hours).  It’s indeed possible that the free-market approach would have generated a worse outcome than the government approach.

Harold Demsetz (among others) warns us against the Nirvana Fallacy; that is, assuming a different (often preferred) method would not contain the same flaws (or flaws at all) from the current method.  We see this very often in politics (eg socialism), but free-market supporters can run aground of the fallacy, too.  Markets, just like governments, are populated with humans with the same foibles.  The incentives are different, to be sure, but markets can fail, too.  One mistake I think far too many market supporters is to assume that markets are not only perfectly efficient (the “efficient market hypothesis”), but also they instantly adjust.  That is not the case.  By arguing, as many do (especially many anarcho-capitalists) that the market solution is always the superior solution is incorrect for the exact same reasons that socialists arguing the government solution is always superior to the market solution.

Markets are extremely powerful.  Generally speaking, they provide excellent results.  But markets are just one of our institutions, and they function best when search and transaction costs are minimized.  For certain problems, there may be other institutions out there that would perform better.

Reality vs Perception

Over at the Liberty Law Blog, Prof. John McGinnis has an excellent piece on legislating.  He writes (emphasis added):

A Nebraska Senator has introduced a bill to require photo identification for voting, not because voting fraud is an actual problem, but because Nebraskans perceive there to be such fraud, whether it exists or not.

If voting is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution, legislation should burden its exercise only to address actual harms, not some people’s impressions of reality.  Thus, the legality of these laws should turn on the question of actual voter fraud and the utility of voter identification in curbing it.

I agree with the good professor, and think this rule should apply not to just legal matters, but economic matters as well.  An argument I’ve heard more and more in recent months in favor of protectionism from people who are nominally free market is that, with our current trade policy, it creates the perception of unfairness; it creates the perception of China “stealing jobs”, of a “hollowing out of the manufacturing base,” of “economic stagnation.”  It doesn’t matter that the data say otherwise, but the perception is there and that’s why Trump won.  Therefore, they conclude, we need some trade barriers to keep the protectionists at bay.

This argument is very similar to the one McGinnis addresses: there is this perception, so therefore we should pass legislation to combat the perception, even if it infringes on people’s rights.  For the same reasons McGinnis rejects the argument in the link, I do so here: legislation that burdens the free exercise of a right should only address an actual harm, not a perceived harm.  Given that free exchange is a fundamental human right, the infringement of such requires the burden of proof to be on those calling for tariffs; they must demonstrate actual unique and substantial harm, not just the perception of it and demonstrate the usefulness of their proposed actions in addressing the harm.*

In short, the perception of harm is not enough to justify the infringement of the right to trade.

*Notice I said “actual unique and substantial harm,” instead of just “harm.”  The reason for this, which will be addressed in a forthcoming blog post, is because any action whatsoever can conceivably harm anyone, but that alone is not grounds for outlawing it.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…comes from page 38 of Economic Sophisms by Frederic Bastiat (1964 Foundation for Economic Education ed., footnote omitted, original emphasis):

I confess that the wisdom and the beauty of these laws [of trade] evoke my admiration and respect.  In them I see Saint-Simonianism: To each according to his capacity; to each capacity according to its production.  In them I see communism, that is to say, the tendency of goods to become the common heritage of men; but a Saint-Simonianism, a communism, regulated by infinite foresight, and in no way abandoned to the frailty, the passions, and the tyranny of men.

JMM: I love this line because Bastiat is addressing two of his biggest critics in 1850’s France: the Saint-Simonianists (socialists) and the communists.  Is Bastiat saying the goals of the socialists or the communists are ignoble?  No.  What he objects to are their methods (central planning, or leaving economic decisions “abandoned to the frailty, the passions, and the tyranny of men”).

Those of us who argue for freedom, of markets and of people, are often accused by our critics of not caring.  Because we are not socialists, we do not care about the poor.  Because we are not communists, we don’t care about the working man.  Because we are not speech restrictions, we do not care about corruption in politics.  Etc Etc.  But nothing could be further from the truth!  We care about these things; that’s why we argue for freedom.  As Bastiat says, it is in these laws of trade and exchange (the economic laws) do we see the noble goals of communism and socialism accomplished without the ignoble aspects of frailty, passions, and tyranny that comes with socialism or communism.

On the Blessings of Liberty

Representative Steve King (R-IA) put out a tweet the other day claiming “our” civilization cannot be restored “by other people’s babies.”  To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite philosophers and writers, Johan Norberg, Rep. King is dead wrong.  Our civilization rests upon liberal* values, values such as:

“that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” (Declaration of Independence)


It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our persons and property, since they pre-exist, and his work is only to secure them from injury (The Law, Frederic Bastiat)


Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.

Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. (Second Treatise of Government, John Locke)

These, and many more represent the values of our liberal civilization.  These blessings of liberty, therefore, fall not upon any one group of people, but all groups of people.  Liberty, like her dear sister Justice, is blind and she loves those who love her.  The guardians of Liberty and Justice are not the white man, or even Western Civilization.  Indeed, if they were, they’d be terrible guardians (as early as 1850 Bastiat was warning about the legalization of plunder perverting the law).  Further, Western Civilization no more created Liberty and Justice or liberalism than did they invent fire.

If we look at the above quotes, we see there are no demarcations between who gets natural rights and who does not, who have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and who do not.  Locke said “all men,” not “only Englishmen” or “only men” or “only Christians.”  The US Constitution promises, though the Bill of Rights, protection from government for all people, not just citizens (citizens get certain other political rights, yes, but that is not the topic of discussion here).  Bastiat discusses that the blessings of liberty pre-exist for all people and come not from the legislator.

My message to Rep. King of Iowa is simple: liberty is the birthright of all people, and liberty will bless all people who love and protect her, regardless of their gender, their skin color, their intelligence level, their national origin (or that of their parents), etc.  Those who would deny a person their blessings for reasons of characteristics are no friend to liberty.

Our civilization belongs to all those who love the ideals of Liberty and Justice, who support the rule of law, free markets, and freedom.  Those who seek to destroy those values, including those within the civilization itself, have no claim to the civilization.  Liberty is not inherited by skin color or national heritage.

*Standard disclaimer about meaning “liberal” here in the classical sense