All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1996

Jobs and Trade

Free Trade Is Fair Trade

Unemployment is the great puzzle of our time. It perplexes politicians, confuses officials, and even entangles economists. It persists and continues to grow despite all the government programs that mean to reduce it and the tax dollars spent to alleviate it.

Some writers continue to echo the teaching of Karl Marx. For them, capitalism always creates an “industrial reserve army of labor” consisting of the mass of wage-earners who are exploited and then thrown out of their jobs. Most economists are at one with John Maynard Keynes, the economic guru of our time, who viewed unemployment as a symptom of insufficient spending. Politicians continue to cling to the Keynesian view because it supports their spending predilection.

Some old-guard politicians and writers explain unemployment in protectionist terms which are among the oldest and most controversial in economics. Unemployment, they blaze about, is the price we pay for our participation in a global economy with millions of unemployed and under-employed people who are willing to work for 25 cents an hour. “Free trade” is “unfair trade” for Americans who are condemned to the indignities and hardships of unemployment.

If foreign trade actually were responsible for the corporate layoffs, the phenomenal rise of imports and exports in recent years should have disemployed most Americans. According to U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, U.S. general imports in 1950 amounted to $8.954 billion. By 1960 they had nearly doubled to $15.073 billion. By 1970 they had risen to $40.356 billion. During the 1970s they soared to $244.871 billion, and during the 1980s to $495 billion. This year they may exceed $700 billion. Surely, if imports would destroy jobs, this 7,800 percent rise in imports since 1950 should have thrown most Americans out of work.

It is difficult to imagine our present working conditions and standards of living if the U.S. government had turned inward and closed its borders in 1950, as the Hoover Administration managed to perpetrate in 1930. Even if the disruption of trade and immediate foreign retaliation would not have brought another depression, the crushing burden which radical liberal administrations placed on the economy during the 1960s and 70s would surely have depressed the economy and drastically lowered American levels of living. Similarly, if there had been no foreign investments, the staggering budget deficits of the 1980s and ’90s would have drained the capital market and paralyzed the economy.

Employment always is a phenomenon of productivity and cost. In a market economy, in booms and depressions, there is an unlimited demand for labor that makes productive contributions. Labor that costs more than it is expected to produce, whether it is unskilled or armed with triple degrees, is devoid of any demand. In the eyes of potential employers, it is utterly “unproductive.” This applies to actors and administrators, systems analysts, software programmers, automatic engineers, and aeronautical scientists. If young Ph.D.s in mathematics are unable to find employment, employers believe them to be rather “unproductive” considering their cost and productivity.

Much university-educated labor remains unemployed because it is not in touch with the labor market. It is government-directed and taxpayer-financed. Graduating from mammoth state universities and guided by Pell grants, Work-Study grants, Stafford loans, Perkins loans, and numerous other federal and state support programs, many graduates are ill-equipped for useful employment. In nearly all fields of economic activity employers provide most of the productivity training. But they are reluctant to offer it if the expenses of the trainee are prohibitive and the final results of the training are not expected to cover the outlays.

Businessmen continually adjust to changes in demand, supply, transportation, technology, cost of labor and capital, government levies and obstacles, domestic and international competition. Every member of the market order is under pressure to adjust in order to stay productive. Of course, a person is free to ignore the pressures; the typist may continue to pound the typewriter. But she cannot justly insist that she be subsidized by fellow workers and employers. The same is true of a university-trained aeronautical engineer who has learned to build great military planes. In times of war and preparations for war he is in great demand. In peace he will have to learn peaceful pursuits. He does not have the natural right to live off the labors of others.

International competition is as beneficial as domestic competition; it forces sellers to outdo one another by offering better and cheaper goods and services and forces buyers to outdo one another by offering higher prices. Protective tariffs and other trade restrictions effect the very opposite; they permit the protected producers to offer inferior products at higher prices. They cause production to shift from places in which the natural conditions of production are more favorable to places in which they are less favorable. They force labor to move from export industries paying high wages to the protected industries that generally pay lower wages. In short, trade restrictions hamper production and thus lower the standards of living.

The competitive position of an enterprise in domestic as well as international markets is determined by its total costs of which labor costs merely are one of many components. In capital-intensive industries, such as the pharmaceutical, chemical, aeronautical, steel, tool-and-die industries, the cost of capital tends to determine competitiveness; in labor-intensive industries the total cost of labor is decisive. There are no labor-intensive American industries that compete with foreign labor. Our service industries which render valuable labor services need not fear foreign competition; they are protected by onerous immigration restrictions.

Free trade is fair trade; those who deny it to others do not deserve it for themselves.


Hans F. Sennholz

  • Hans F. Sennholz (1922-2007) was Ludwig von Mises' first PhD student in the United States. He taught economics at Grove City College, 1956–1992, having been hired as department chair upon arrival. After he retired, he became president of the Foundation for Economic Education, 1992–1997.