Vice Squad
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
Off Topic: Is Protectionism Immoral?

Like many, probably most economists, I generally do not support protectionist measures. But I don't share economist Steven Landsburg's take on protectionist policies, which he presented in Slate in support of his decision to vote for President Bush next week. Here's an excerpt:
If George Bush had chosen the racist David Duke as a running mate, I'd have voted against him, almost without regard to any other issue. Instead, John Kerry chose the xenophobe John Edwards as a running mate. I will therefore vote against John Kerry.

Duke thinks it's imperative to protect white jobs from black competition. Edwards thinks it's imperative to protect American jobs from foreign competition. There's not a dime's worth of moral difference there. While Duke would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of skin color, Edwards would discriminate on the arbitrary basis of birthplace. Either way, bigotry is bigotry, and appeals to base instincts should always be repudiated.
Would one be a bigot to discriminate in favor of one's own children versus strangers? One's neighbors? When is discrimination arbitrary, and when is it not arbitrary?

Adam Smith, of course, addresses these issues, in Part VI of Theory of Moral Sentiments. Chapter 1 of Section 2 of Part VI (whew) is entitled "Of the Order in which Individuals are recommended by Nature to our care and attention," and Chapter 2 is entitled "Of the order in which Societies are by nature recommended to our Beneficence." Smith notes that it is only natural that we prefer ourselves and our relations to strangers. A man's family consists of those who "are naturally and usually the persons upon whose happiness or misery his conduct must have the greatest influence." Further, our own, and our family and friends', happiness is tied to our country -- and it is within our country where our conduct has the greatest influence. The interests of our country, therefore, are near to us both from self-interest and our "private benevolent affections." And this is fine. "That wisdom which contrived the system of human affections, as well as that of every other part of nature, seems to have judged that the interest of the great society of mankind would be best promoted by directing the principal attention of each individual to that particular portion of it, which was most within the sphere both of his abilities and of his understanding."

Anyway, like Smith, I am generally against protectionism. But I don't think that it is immoral to prefer the interests of people in your own country to those of people elsewhere -- even though, like Smith, I would hope to be generous towards all people, and not envy improvements in the well-being of foreign nations.

[Update: Professor Landsburg is guest-blogging at Marginal Revolution this week and reprises his comments there. The Agitator took favorable (?) notice of Professor Landsburg's sentiments.]

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