Friends of Liberty Should Write More Letters to the Editor
MAY 01, 1999 by JOHN LANDRUM
Filed Under : Protectionism, Free Trade, Free Markets
John Landrum, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and a former attorney, is in management at a New Orleans manufacturing company. He is the author of Out of Court: How to Protect Your Business From Litigation (Headwaters Press, 1992).
I have always envied “how-to” writers and secretly hoped to become one. This is my latest essay into the field. I want to bestir Freeman readers to make more noise in the mainstream media.
I’ll offer some quick background, hoping to convince you that, if I can do it, you surely can. Until roughly three years ago, I was what Ayn Rand would have called a “contemptible middle-of-the-roader.” I tended to dismiss those who talked about political issues in terms of principles, thinking them poor compromisers. I thought that we could never make democracy work if everyone insisted on his own starting position. I was well meaning and sincere. And I was like almost everyone else I knew.
Then a friend introduced me to the writings of Henry Hazlitt (Economics in One Lesson), Frederic Bastiat (The Law and Economic Sophisms), and Ludwig von Mises (“Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth”). Suddenly, I got it.
Reading these writings, and since then many others, I was struck by the question: why was all of this such a revelation to me? I almost never encountered even cheap imitations of these writers in any newspaper—including “conservative” newspapers.
It occurred to me that anyone who was convinced by this stuff and took it seriously should make some racket. And writers such as Bastiat and Hazlitt gave wonderful examples of how this could be done.
Last year I found my first chance—a newspaper article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune—and wrote a letter to the editor in response. (A reader of my letter sent a copy to The Freeman, which in turn invited this article.)
I imagine I’m less well educated in free-market principles than most Freeman readers. So I share this story in the hope that it inspires others who may not consider themselves authorities to write confidently when they see free markets challenged.
Think of this as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Defending Liberty.
The Times-Picayune is the only major newspaper in New Orleans. Last May, it ran a page-one article headlined “Crawfish peelers losers in trade war.” Crawfish are a favored source of protein in Louisiana. In the short season—roughly March through April—restaurants and markets sell them freshly boiled, with shells on. During the entire year, stores and restaurants buy them shelled and frozen for inclusion in sauces and stews. For this market, crawfish peelers remove the shells by hand.
The Times-Picayune explained that in the past few years Chinese exporters have begun to produce and peel crawfish in large quantities and sell them in Louisiana. Chinese prices are considerably lower than local ones, presumably because of the lower cost of labor in China.
The article made clear that peeling crawfish is one of the least desirable jobs imaginable, with low wages, unpleasant conditions, utter monotony, unpredictable demand for work, and frequent hand lacerations and abrasions. Nevertheless, the article called local peelers “the latest victims in the trade war with China.” The federal government had slapped a tariff on Chinese crawfish imports, but according to the newspaper, that was not enough to create a “level playing field.”
Local buyers were interviewed about the seeming ethical dilemma posed by the prospect of putting local workers out of jobs by buying the cheaper foreign crawfish. In reading the article, I could imagine readers writing angry letters to their congressmen urging stronger action against the insidious Chinese.
After reading Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms one time through, I knew the rebuttals to the philosophical arguments implicit in the article. My letter to the editor quoted the news article’s salient passages, then stated that we are no more “at war” with crawfish peelers from China than we are with wheat growers from Kansas, poultry men from Arkansas, cattlemen from Texas, automakers from Detroit, or anyone else who produces the things we need more cheaply than we can produce them ourselves. In the same way, should a French pharmaceutical company discover a low-cost cure for cancer, we would not be at war with the French, even though the cure might “threaten” the local cancer-treatment industry.
Still following Bastiat, I argued that the purpose of an economy is to create an abundance of the things we need and want, rather than to create jobs. If the essential point were to create jobs, then I could help the economy by hijacking truckloads of peeled crawfish—or better yet, blowing up roads and bridges.
I mentioned that confusion of these objectives underlay opposition to free trade. Protectionists assume that foreign producers’ success can only come at the expense of local jobs in the mistaken belief that economics is a zero-sum game; they fail to recognize that trade and innovation create new wealth, with attendant new capacity and demand.
I concluded with the observation—which the Times-Picayune omitted—that the front page of the same edition had a long article celebrating the lowest unemployment in a long time.
I was motivated by principle, but I did fall prey to something of a stunt. One paragraph near the end of my letter stated: “Protecting uncompetitive, labor-intensive industries is a losing game. Bangladesh promotes jute production because it creates so many jobs, even though alternative materials made jute uneconomical long ago. Bangladesh is not my idea of a good economic model to follow.”
My motive was to hit the “street smart,” practical reader who would not easily be swayed by Bastiat’s logic. My source was P. J. O’Rourke’s All the Trouble in the World—a must-read for anyone interested in an effective challenge to people who want you to worry.
Like Shakespeare, very little of my content is original.
A Better Approach
Read, or re-read, Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms. You’ll get the clear impression that the author is having a marvelous time—luxuriating in the falsehoods of protectionists, like a porpoise sporting in the surf. The wonderful thing about the free-trade controversy is that the potential opportunities for reductio ad absurdum are unlimited.
After the Times-Picayune published my letter, it occurred to me that my article could have included an entirely different approach. Namely, if it is a good idea for Congress to protect Louisiana crawfish peelers, what American producers is it not a good idea for them to protect? (I suppose that we could spare uncompetitive foreign imports, since presumably no local producers would lose business to them.)
And if protecting American producers from all foreign competition helps the U.S. economy, then it should also be true that in each of the 50 states, protecting in-state producers from out-of-state competition would help the state economy. That is, Arkansans as a class would presumably be richer if they could only buy from fellow Arkansans; Texans as a class would be richer if they only bought Texas-produced goods and services; and so on.
And if protecting in-state businesses from out-of-state competition would enrich each state, then it would stand to reason that a law requiring each of us to buy only from vendors located in our own counties would only compound the positive effect—necessitating a local producer for everything that we need.
And if it would enrich everyone to insist that we buy from inside our home counties, then logically it should enrich us most to prevent us from buying from anyone—to legislate that we have to meet all of our own needs ourselves. We would certainly have full employment.
But as countless free-market advocates have pointed out, the total elimination of specialization would also restore us to the economic condition of savages.
This approach would have been a good line to pursue. I haven’t seen any articles with a protectionist slant in the Times-Picayune since the crawfish feature and began to despair of a chance to try it. Then last fall, USA Today offered a debate between its editor arguing against protection (thank goodness!) and a steel industry spokesman trying to “protect American jobs.” I mailed the letter immediately.
Any Freeman reader can do what I’ve done. I encourage you all to try it.
See you in the papers.