Beggar Thy Neighbor

Imagine you live next door to a family.  They are poor as poor can be: under-eating, wearing rags, no heat, no cool, little water, etc.  They just barely survive.  One day, the adults of the household decide to start working more, and they begin trading (ie, buying and selling) with the wider community.  In a fairly short time, they go from being poor to being moderately wealthy: more food, better clothing, they have a small, old, but operating car now.  They have heat and air conditioning.  In short, they’re moving on up.  They’re not quite at your and your neighbors’ standard of living yet, but they’re getting there.

Now, one of your neighbors says: “That family…oh, they’re bad news.  They’re getting wealthier every day.  If they keep growing at this pace, they’re going to leave us in the dust.  We have to stop them!  I demand we all stop buying from them.”

One would, I should think, reasonably object to such measures.  What’s it matter that the neighbor is improving his life?  Wealth is not a zero-sum game, and a wealthier neighbor is a good thing for the neighborhood.  One would conclude the objecting neighbor is just jealous, just trying to protect his position.

And yet, this is exactly the jealous reasoning employed by protectionists scarcityists.  Warren Platt, a self-proclaimed protectionist, leaves the following comment at Carpe Diem the other day:

I disagree with the narrative that China is 50 years behind the USA [in terms of living standards]. They are not. They are par with us, and are growing much, much faster. They will soon leave us in the dust unless something changes.

Ignoring the factual issues with Warren’s comment, even if the Chinese were on par with the US, so what?  The US is still an insanely wealthy nation.  So long as we resist a glade into scarcityism and socialism, that will continue to be.  What’s it matter if another nation approaches or surpasses us?  That is no reason to impose tariffs to harm both us and them!

China has spent much of the past century in the muck and mire of human poverty, and now that they are finally pulling themselves up, the objection is they threaten our relative position, and must be cast back down.

There are lots of poor arguments for scarcityism, but this is among the worst.

A Quick Thought on the Balance of Trade

When a foreign nation buys resources and goods from the domestic nation and takes them out of the country (exports), it’s considered “good” by mercantilists.

When a foreign nation sells goods and resources to the domestic nation (imports), it’s considered “bad” by mercantilists.

When the number of resources coming in is higher than going out, and some resources are bought by the foreign nation and kept in the domestic country (trade deficit), it’s considered terrible by mercantilists.

Mercantilism is a strange doctrine.

Inspired by today’s Cafe Hayek post

Transferring Wealth is Not the Same as Creating Wealth

The Commerce Department has proposed tariffs of up to 20% on Canadian sofwood lumber imports.    These tariffs are phrased by the Administration and supporters as “leveling the playing field” and wealth creating measures.  Ramiyer, commenting on this blog post by Mark Perry, has a typical protectionist scarcityist argument:

Plus [the tariff] saves thousands of jobs who can afford to purchase and go out and eat. These people are real workers. Not some people who just throw their opinions or Wall Street Looters or big cheaters as in case of some CEOs.

It is true that some jobs are ‘saved’.  But that is only half the story: many jobs are lost, too.  Tariffs do not create wealth.  They transfer it.  Tariffs transfer wealth from consumers to producers and the government (for a graphical representation, see my blog post here).  Unlike free trade, no new wealth is created (in fact, tariffs cause wealth to disappear!). The wealth is merely transferred from the consumers and their spending habits to the producers and their spending habits. Therefore, a nation cannot, though tariffs and artificial scarcity, create wealth; it cannot tax itself into prosperity.  It can merely redistribute wealth.

What’s interesting about this is, until very recently, the same people arguing for tariffs now understood this.  They decry welfare and high corporate taxes for the exact same reason I outlined above for opposing tariffs.  I find the hypocrisy nauseating.

The Doctrine of Scarcity

Two brothers, Charles and Joseph, are sitting at home reading the news.  The following is a conversation between the two:

Charles: Joe, did you see the nation of Zimbabwe is facing a terrible drought?

Joseph: Are they?  What fabulous luck for them!

C: Luck?  How is this luck?

J: My dear brother, have you no capacity to reason?  The drought is a blessing for the farmers of Zimbabwe!  First, since it makes the supply of food more dear, the prices rise.  The farmers get more money!  This, they can spend on employing more workers (since the land is now less fertile) toiling all day to get the wheat out of the ground.  The demand for workers will increase their wages, making the Zimbabwean worker better off.  Surely, only good times can follow!  This is just Economics 101!

C: Perhaps, Joe, but this is only because there is less food.  Perhaps, in nominal terms, workers earn more, but they can buy less with their money.  Are they not worse off?

J: My dear brother, have you learned nothing?  Their increased pay will make them richer!  What they can’t spend on food, they’ll surely spend on other things!  That’ll further increase demand for workers, raising wages even higher!

C: But that doesn’t solve the initial problem, Joe.  There is still less food to go around.  Sure, they may have more money, but that doesn’t calm an angry belly.  Would it not be better for the rains to come and have the fields of Zimbabwe overflow with grains?

J: And have the price of food plummet?  Have the workers no longer needed (since the fields are now more productive) be unemployed?  Why, think of the chaos of having all those people unemployed!  You would undo the Zimbabwean worker with your mana from Heaven!

C: Perhaps there would initially be people who no longer need work in the fields, but they’d have more full bellies.  Since they are freed up from the labor, they could do other things (maybe make clothing?).

J: You are simply a theorist!  No, brother, it is far better for the people of Zimbabwe to have drought, to drive up prices, use more resources for less output.  Indeed, it is in scarcity, not abundance, that true wealth lies!

C: But you live with less-

J: So?  The workers have work!  That is all they need!  They have a sense of purpose, a sense of living!  What more could a person want?

C: Food, shelter, clothing, leisure…

J: Bah!  More of your theorizing!  The true strength of an economy is the number of jobs it has!

C: But what good are those jobs if you can’t buy anything?

J: Better than having lots to buy and not enough farm jobs.

C: But there are other kinds of jobs.  They can do something else.

J: “Something else!”  More theorizing!  Such an unsatisfying answer.

C: But true nonetheless.

(The conversation continued in this manner for some time).

Joe’s comments may seem weird to our ears, and yet it is the common claim of those who practice the doctrine of scarcity commonly known as “protectionism.”  Since scarcity, and not “protection” or “abundance”, is the foundation for “protectionism” I propose calling these people “scarcitists.”

The scarcitists have a weird idea that it is from scarcity that wealth arises, not abundance.   It is as if the best thing to happen to Man was to be cast from the Garden of Eden.  It is as if Hell, and not Heaven, is our goal.  Scarcisim is a strange doctrine.

Someone Else

The other night I went into Georgetown to see a show a friend from childhood was performing (shameless plug: check out Grace Morrison).  It occurred to me, as it sometimes does, how wealthy trade has made us all.  Here I was, in a bar, having a drink, watching a friend sing.  How was any of this possible?  Because of trade:

Someone else was growing my food
Someone else was writing my books
Someone else was brewing my beer
Someone else was making my clothes
Someone else was driving my train
Someone else was lighting the room
Someone else…

These countless “someone elses” had freed up time for me to have that greatest luxury of all: leisure time with friends.  And, subsequently, they freed up time for Grace and her band to write songs, travel hundreds of miles, and perform for us.  And all these “someone elses” asked for in return from me was a few economic ramblings and writings.  All they asked for in return from Grace was a few songs.

Trade allows us to free up time, time which can be used for innovation, or study, or leisure.  Despite what the protectionists (whom I shall now refer to as scarcitists, since they peddle scarcity.  That name may need work) argue, this increase in time is a good thing.  It’s how humanity advances and why we can afford diversions.  We can study things like medicine, music, art, and philosophy because someone else is growing the food, making the clothes, etc.

High Costs and Low Costs

All production requires costs; all output requires input.  To that end, costs (which we will refer to here as the economic resources, namely land, labor, capital) are essential.  We free-marketers, in promoting our cause, will sometimes be glib on costs and argue that free trade will reduce costs (that is, reduce the amount of resources necessary) to produce.  But yet, here in the United States (and elsewhere), as we expanded trade we’ve used more resources.  More labor is used in the US than in past decades and centuries.  More land, more capital.  And, indeed, the rates those resources command have risen.  Wages are high.  Rents are high.  Are we wrong?  Are the protectionist worries of joblessness and ruin overblown?

Here, we return to our supply and demand diagram.  Such a simple picture, but it tells us much:


A rise in price (that is, an increase in costs) can occur for two reasons: 1) An increase in demand (the demand curve shifting to the right) or 2) a decline in supply (the supply curve shifting to the left).  Both these shift result in higher costs, but the reasons are staunchly different.  One is desirable, the other is detestable.  An increase in demand is a sign of increasing welfare: people have more to spend on various goods and services.  This increased competition for goods raises prices, which generates more production.  Firms, reacting to these higher prices, increase their inputs: they hire more workers, invest in more machines, build more factories.  The wage rate and rental rate increase; the prosperity causes the firms costs to rise.  Prices are higher, yes, but so is the standard of living.

But what happens in the opposite manner?  If the supply of a good is cut, then price rises but production is reduced.  Although prices are high, firms are not looking to expand production; resources are scarce.*

The price rises are caused by two separate things.  Whereas the first (demand-shift) is caused by abundance, by wealth, the second (supply-shift) is caused by scarcity!

It is also true in the opposite manner: prices can fall because of abundance in supply (supply curve shifts to the right) or scarcity in demand (demand curve shifts to the left).

Protectionists often tout the higher prices their policies will bring as a good thing: they will grant the firm more profit and thus higher demand for workers and higher wages, they promise.  But they confuse the effects of their policies.  They implicitly argue their policies create higher prices because of an abundance of demand, but it is really because of a scarcity of supply!  This stands in stark contrast to the higher prices that develop from free trade, from the abundance of demand.  This is also why wealthy nations tend to have higher prices (in nominal terms) than poorer nations.

Once again, we see the protectionists arguing the most absurd notion that it is in scarcity we grow strong and abundance we grow weak!

*I am quick to add that, for the sake of our conversation, I am assuming the shortage-driven price is not causing others to look for alternative methods to supply the demand.  This assumption is not true, but it simplifies the discussion.  Relaxing this assumption does not change the outcome discussed.

Free Trade as Insurance

Nature has blessed humans around the world with different endowments.  Some live near water, and thus have lots of fish.  Some are good with numbers and figures.  Some live near forests and timbers.  Et cetera et cetera. Trade helps evenly distribute those gifts that Providence has bestowed upon us.  The person with lots of fish can trade it for timber.  The person with lots of clothes can trade it for jewelry.  The goods are distributed across the people, not according to the “luck of the draw” of their endowments, but by their desire to better themselves.

The same is true of nations (after all, nations don’t trade.  People do).

But trade also acts as an insurance policy.  If the US (the world’s largest supplier of many foodstuffs) were suddenly hit by a drought, and half the crop died, there wouldn’t be mass starvation in the country.  The US could import what was needed from elsewhere.  The price would be higher, to be sure, since there is no a smaller supply (globally) that needs to be distributed, but there would still be the supply.  If, however, the US were “independent,” as the protectionists wish, then such a agricultural disaster would be magnitudes worse.

Having supply lines across the world doesn’t, as the protectionists like to claim, make the US more vulnerable.  It makes us less vulnerable!