Thursday, January 17, 2008

When economists preach

Heaven protect us from the moral clarity of economists. In a New York Times op-ed (Jan. 16), the University of Rochester's Steven E. Landsburg tells us that since we're all beneficiaries of free trade, we owe nothing to its victims. Claiming that "all economists know that when American jobs are outsourced, Americans as a group are net winners," Landsburg asks, "Does it [our collective benefit] create a moral mandate for the taxpayer-subsidized retraining programs proposed by Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney?"

Landsburg's answer" "Um, no." We don't feel that we need to compensate our pharmacist when we decide to buy shampoo more cheaply online, and so we shouldn't feel that need when our car buying decisions lead to auto industry layoffs. In the world economy it's every man for himself, and that's exactly as it should be.

This argument is ridiculous. Granted that no one has an intrinsic right to any given job or type of job; granted too that I do not personally 'owe' a Detroit auto worker if I buy a Hyundai. Still, we have a collective interest in creating conditions that foster prosperity for large groups of our fellow citizens -- and a collective responsibility, when old established ways of doing things (e.g., heavily unionized large industries) have trapped large numbers in in low-opportunity skill sets. Elected officials are literally hired to create conditions that maximize opportunity for individuals and so help the economy adapt to the "creative destruction" of which Landsburg is obviously enamored.

As citizens, too, we may collectively choose tradeoffs that limit the undoubted benefits of free trade, i.e. low prices There's some truth to Landsburg's claim that "protectionism" is a form of bullying, since one group generally pays more for another's benefit, as manufacturers using steel did when Bush imposed tariffs on steel imports. But not all forms of "protectionism" are morally equivalent. If a town wants to zone to keep big box stores out, that is its prerogative. We may not 'owe' our local pharmacist anything. But we may decide, collectively, that we'll all pay more to keep him or her on the block. As consumers, we all vote with our wallets. As citizens, we occasionally muster the will to vote with something else.

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