The Confusion Around Shithole

Predictably, Trump made an undiplomatic description of certain people and countries and, just as predictably, people on the Left have objected to his comments.  And, just as predictably, Trump defenders have appeared with cries of “political correctness.”

However, the problem with Trump’s comments is not the profanity or disparaging of certain countries, as undiplomatic as they may be.  The problem is much older:

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society.

Given the context of Mr Trump’s comments, that he was questioning the wisdom of having immigrants from “shithole” countries, Mr Trump makes exactly the mistake Bastiat discusses: he confused people for the government.  The countries may, in fact, be shitholes (however one defines that), but the people aren’t necessarily so.  We are not our government; we are individuals.  And, as I have written elsewhere, the institutions under which we live matter a whole lot.

In their rush to criticize Trump, the Left has made similar errors.  They have focused on defences of the targeted nations or of blanket cries of “racism.”  They’ve ignored the individual aspect of immigration (no surprise given the Left’s overt infatuation with socialism).

Similarly, in their rush to defend Trump, many of his supporters miss the context and point of Trump’s comment.  They wonder why Trump can’t call a country a shithole, citing concerns about political correctness.  But they too make the mistake of confusing the government and the society.

In short, Trump, his defenders, and his detractors on the Left all show their socialist leanings, and subsequent fallacious thinking, with this flap over shithole and immigration.

What, Exactly, is Free Trade?

Calls for government intervention into the economy usually focus on some supposed deviation in the free market system: currency manipulation, tariffs by trading partners, taxation, etc.  As the argument goes, because these things deviate from the ideal assumptions of the model, some government intervention (usually in the form of retaliatory or punitive actions against their citizens) becomes necessary.

However, this form of argumentation represents a fundamental misunderstanding on what free trade is and is not, and more importantly the uses of economic models.  This post is an effort to clear up these misconceptions.

Free Trade is Not a Policy

The language surrounding is misleading, both by its advocates and its opponents.  Both coach free trade in terms of policy: “Government needs to do laissez-faire!” or “Government needs to reign in free trade!” or something like that.  Free trade, however, is not a policy.  One does not implement free trade.  A government can take action to promote free trade (reducing tariffs, cutting regulations, etc), but it cannot adopt a free trade policy per se.

Free trade is nothing more than allowing peaceful interactions between consenting individuals.  It requires no active government policy.  In a free trade society, any governmental role would be naturally be limited to a passive role of enforcing contracts and protecting rights (what Jim Buchanan calls the “Protective State“).

Furthermore, since free trade is no policy, it is not dependent upon the assumptions of the economic models to function (I will return to this point in the next section).  None of the arguments for free trade require perfect information, identical principles between buyers and sellers, known utility functions and universal preferences, etc.  Free trade is robust to deviations from the ideal; the system still works because it is a process, not a policy.  Deviations from the ideal, movements away from equilibrium, present opportunities for entrepreneurs to correct issues; the many plan for the many and do not require the guiding hand of government to correct for deviations.

Models as Analysis and as Policy Tools

Models serve two roles: first as a means of analysis and second as a means of directing policy.  In these two roles, the characteristics of the model matter.

An analytical model, which is the proper use of economic models, involve simplifying assumptions in order to explore (or “analyze”) a particular question.  By way of example, let’s look at minimum wage.  The question is: “What effects will minimum wage have?”  Through a set of assumptions contained in the supply and demand price theory model, we can make a pattern prediction: a binding minimum wage will cause a surplus of labor in the market.  We can make this pattern prediction because our model reasonably reflects reality, even though it has many simplifying assumptions which are, to be frank, unrealistic (for example, the model contains the assumption of “all else held equal,” a condition which never happens).  Our analytical models give us the tools to analyze.

Where the problem comes in is using an analytical model to guide policy (both free-market supporters and opponents make this mistake).  To guide policy, you need a descriptive model, not an analytical model.  In other words, you need a model that is descrptive of reality, not one that reflects reality.  When attempting to guide policy, this is where the assumptions of the model become important.  To impose an “optimal tariff,” you need to know the demand and supply curves (something which is unknowable), you need to know indifference curves and von Neumann-Morgenstern utility functions (which are unknowable), true relative prices and equilibrium, etc etc.  To paraphrase Hayek, to use these models to guide policy, you need to assume knowledge that the price system alone can actually give you!  When using models to guide policy, deviations from the model’s assumptions become critical!


Any good scientist needs to know the limitations of the tools he uses.  Price theory models are extremely helpful in providing a lens through which to analyze the world.  They allow us to make pattern predictions and conduct analysis.  What they do not allow us to do is to make point predictions and guide policy with any level of accuracy needed.  Anyone who pretends otherwise is operating under the pretense of knowledge; he is not acting as a scientist, but rather as a charlatan or a fool: a charlatan if he deliberately knows the limits of his models but pretends they are more accurate than they are and a fool is he believes his own models give him the ability to shape policy.

Institutional Diversity and Trade

A popular argument against free trade is that the logic of trade requires identical (or at least similar) rules/institutions between the trading parties.  Dani Rodrick recently made this argument, and you can see Don Boudreaux’s response here.  There is absolutely nothing in the logic or argument for free trade that necessitates similar institutions between the partners.  Only one thing is required: both parties benefit.

However, for both parties to benefit from trade, they must inherently be different from each other.  If the two were identical, then no trade would ever occur.  Diversity in tastes, in endowments, in incomes, even in rules, are desirable and, to differing degrees, necessary.  The idea that trading partners must be similar to one another, including in their belief structures, undermines the logic of trade.

Moving from the individual level to the national level, institutional diversity helps show actual costs and benefits of various institutions.  For example, if the whole world were as protectionist as Red China in the 1950’s, no one would know what a horrible scheme that is as the whole world would have looked like massive starvation.  Fortunately, the Chinese realized their mistake and have become rapidly more open-trade, thus leading to their huge economic gains lately, but it was the fact that institutional diversity existed that such folly was understood.  If a given national government decides not to allow peaceful trading between their citizens and another group of citizens, then their citizens are harmed and the true costs of their institutions, as well as their true benefits, are not known.

Diversity is a necessary ingredient of trade.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…is found in a letter from Frederic Bastiat to Richard Cobden (leader of the Anti-Corn Law League) dated 8 April 1845.  The letter can be found on page 58 of the Liberty Fund’s collection of Bastiat’s correspondence, The Man and the Statesman (emphasis added):


Since you have permitted me to write to you, I will reply to your kind letter dates 12th December last.  I have been discussing the printing of the translation [of Cobden’s speeches and pamphlets] I told you about with M. Guillaumin, a bookseller in Paris.

The book is entitled “Cobden and the League, or the Campiagn in England in Favor of Free Trade.”  I have taken the liberty of using your name for the following reasons: I could not entitle this work “The Anti-Corn Law League.”  Apart from the fact that this would have a barborous sound for French ears, it would have brought to mind a limited conception of the project. It would have presented the question as purely English, whereas it is a humanitarian one, the most notably so of all those which have brought campaigning to our century.

By presenting the issue of free trade as a humanitarian issue rather than a sectarian or nationalist issue, he demonstrates the universality of the principles of free trade.  Many opponents of free trade like to argue that free trade is conditional.  They may argue that free trade requires “transnational rule-making institutions.”  Or that trade only is good if one nation (ie the nation of the speaker) benefits.  Or that free trade needs to be “fair” (whatever that means).  But Bastiat makes no such prerequisites.  Bastiat and Cobden both argue that free trade is not an English concern, not a French concern, not an American concern, but a human concern.

The Anti-Corn Law League that Cobden was part of was founded in opposition to the Corn Laws, a series of mercantilist legislation that raised the price of food within Great Britain by restricting imports.  Given this legislation occurred at the same time as the Irish Potato Famine, the Corn Law, by artificially increasing scarcity of food, likely caused many deaths in Ireland from the famine.  The Corn Laws contributed to a humanitarian crisis.  We are seeing similar situations going on in Puerto Rico, where scarcity is increased because of the Jones Act, and Houston and Florida where scarcity is increased because of anti-price-gouging legislation.  Free trade is a humanitarian concern, not a sectarian concern.

In Stark Contrast

In booming economic times, the detrimental effects of policies like minimum wage, immigration restrictions, protectionism scarcityism, or socialism, can be hard to see.  The good growth outweighs the bad from the policies, obscuring their effects.  However, once times get tough, then the negative aspects of these policies stand in stark contrast.  By way of metaphor, imagine going downhill in a car.  Lightly applying the brakes won’t do much (depending on how steep the hill is, you may actually gain speed!).  However, if you are going uphill, even a light tap will have a large effect on the car.

Unfortunately, the obscurity generated by the good times can cause less careful thinkers to determine that there are no negative effects of the policies they want.  We see this quite often with protectionism.

We are now seeing the negative effects of protectionism and immigration restrictions here in the US following three major hurricanes that have hit in the past month: Harvey in Houston, Irma in Florida, and Maria in Puerto Rico.  In normal times, the detrimental effects of artificially high prices and artificially scarce resources tend not to be noticed.  Like the farmer who grows 100 acres of corn, and 1 acre is destroyed by parasites, it’s not too noticeable.  But if a disaster hits, and how only 10 acres can grow with 1 acre being destroyed, it’s very problematic.  When times are tough, and resources scarce, the market needs to work.  These artificial restrictions only make the scarcity worse.

Looking at disasters like Irma, Harvey, Maria, etc give us an excellent chance to test the claims of the scarcityists, that protectionism, minimum wage, and immigration restrictions grow the economy, not shrink it.  Given the tough time Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico have is recovering basic supplies, it’s hard to believe the claims of the scarcityists.  Abundance is wealth, not scarcity.

On Monopolies

Earlier today, my friend Vanessa texted me the following question (small edits made for grammatical purposes):

So almost dr of economics- Am I correct in thinking monopolies are bad for consumers, thus must be bad for the economy?

Vanessa’s intuition on this question is good.  As Bastiat said, we must evaluate economics through the lens of the consumer.  Below is my response to her (sorry for the weird spacing.  I don’t know how to fix it):

“Are monopolies bad for consumers?”  This depends on what the meaning of the word “bad” means.  Monopolies are output restrictiors (that is, they get a higher price by reducing the output they make), and they produce not where price equals the marginal cost of output (ie the “zero profit” level), but the highest price they can get.  So, compared to “perfect competition,” the monopoly produces less at a higher price; they are inefficient compared to the perfect competition model.  Since “bad” is a judgment call. I’ll leave that up to you.

However, there are some situations where monopolies, as inefficient as they are compared to perfect competition, are the preferable option:
1) In economics, the only way a monopoly can naturally arise is if there are natural barriers preventing entry into the market (eg. high start-up costs, geographical barriers, that sort of thing).  We call these, shockingly enough, natural monopolies.  The implication of these conditions is that multiple forms of similar firms could not exist at the same time (ie, competition).  So, breaking up of this monopoly would not lead to lower prices and more output, but no output at all!
2) Imagine we have a firm who is a major polluter of the water.  For every item they produce, they dump a gallon of waste into the local river.  Further, assume (unlike the example in item 1 above), that this firm is not a natural monopoly.  If an effort to break up this company were undertaken, and output was to increase, then one would see an increase in the pollution dumped into the river!  From an environmental POV, this the monopoly is more efficient since it pollutes less!
Just like all economic questions, the answer is ‘as compared to what?”  It’s possible, as I explain here, that monopolies may be the preferable option.  A blanket statement like “monopolies are bad” or “monopolies are good,” depends on the context in which we’re speaking (and also what “good” and “bad” mean).

Coase, Transaction Costs, and Environmental Entreprenureship

Today’s Quote of the Day comes from pages 7-8 of Ronald Coase’s 1988 book The Firm, the Market, and the Law [emphasis added]:

Markets are institutions that exist to facilitate exchange, that is, they exist in order to reduce the cost of carrying out exchange transactions.  In an economic theory that assumes transaction costs are nonexistant, markets have no function to perform and it seems perfectly reasonable to develop the theory of exchange by an elaborate analysis of individuals exchanging nuts for apples on the edge of a forest or some similar fanciful example.

Many readers of Coase (including economists!) misunderstand him.  This is evident in the improperly named Coase Theorem (it’s improper in that it’s not a theorem).  In fact, Coase is so often misunderstood, he felt compelled to write the book this quote is from to clarify his point!  Coase is often understood to say that, absent transaction costs (or sufficiently low transaction costs), externality issues (eg pollution, noise, etc) can be solved by an allocation of property rights and, regardless of their initial allocation, will result in a Pareto-efficient outcome.  This is correct, but only a partial understanding of Coase.

Much of Coase’s work (and work that spun off from him, such as with Armin Alchian, Harold Demsetz, Gordon Tullock, and many others including my own) focus on the role of the market in addressing externality issues.  Detractors from Coase argue that his insights, that markets for externalities can exist only if there are no/low transaction costs, are not applicable to the “real world,” since transaction costs abound and, therefore, government intervention is necessary.  But this argument represents a misreading of Coase.  In a purely ideal world, there would be no transaction costs, but then no market would be necessary.  As Coase says in the above quote, it is in the world of transaction costs that the market is most useful!  The existence of transaction costs gives rise to firms and other means of human collaboration, which in turn reduce transaction costs, and increase the market exchange of individuals (see The Nature of the Firm (1937) for a more in-depth conversation on this point).

Expanding the idea of markets, firms, and transaction costs to environmental issues, we see the rise of “enviropreneurs” (to use the phrasing of PERC), that is people who seek out and find ways to mitigate these transaction costs in order to achieve desired environmental ends; in short, a market process of environmental concerns (for a detailed look at many different kinds of enviropreneurs, see Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation, especially Chapter 9).  The fact transaction costs exist is not a detriment to free market environmentalism, like the detractors of Coase argue, but rather what allows it to come about!

Like Coase (and Buchanan and many others) before me, I realize the market is not a panacea.  There may be conditions for government to get involved (namely where involvement by the firm or an individual are too costly).  But the work of Coase (and Alchian and Demsetz and Buchanan and Tullock and Anderson and many others) show us that the mere existence of an externality and transaction costs is not enough to justify intervention.