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Wednesday, November 2, 2016 Leer en Español

The Adventures of the Mercantilist Burglar

What would it look like if a burglar adopted Donald Trumps views on trade?

Henry George in his 1886 volume Protection or Free Trade, offers this scathing critique of mercantilist protectionism:

But the things of which exports and imports consist are not things that nature forces on us against our will, and that we have to struggle to rid ourselves of; but things that nature gives only in return for labor, things for which men make exertions and undergo privations.  Him who has or can command much of these things we call rich; him who has little we call poor; an when we say that a country increases its wealth we mean that the amount of those things which it contains increases faster than its population.  What, then, is more repugnant to reason than the notion that the way to increase the wealth of a country is to promote the sending of such things away and to prevent the bringing of them in?  Could there be a queerer inversion of ideas?  Should we not think even a dog had lost his senses that snapped and snarled when given a bone, and wagged his tail when a bone was taken from him?

What can we conclude from this? On the economics of trade, Donald Trump and other protectionists who really believe that trade restrictions and export subsidies enrich the people of the country are less thoughtful than are our canine friends.

The Mercantilist Burglar

This quotation prompts the following thought experiment.  Suppose that house burglars take to heart the economic ‘logic’ of Donald Trump’s and other mercantilists’ arguments about trade: how would these burglars burgle?

The answer is clear.  Here’s an account of a world of mercantilist burglars.

Mercantilist burglars spend long hours and many of their own resources building furniture, crafting fine jewelry, and manufacturing high-quality consumer electronics.  The mercantilist burglars then break into strangers’ homes and deposit these goods throughout those homes.  Importantly, the mercantilist burglars never take anything at all from the strangers’ homes.

Immediately before exiting from the strangers’ homes, the burglars leave their mailing addresses, confident that the strangers whose homes have been mercantilist-burgled will send to these burglars notes on paper expressing their – the homeowners’ – wish to repay with different goods the mercantilist burglars.  But the proud mercantilist burglars have no sympathy for their ‘victims’ and proudly refuse to fall for these crafty efforts of their ‘victims’ to eliminate the gains that the mercantilist burglars are confident they – the burglars’ – have won by depositing lots of goods in their ‘victims” homes.

With deep satisfaction and ever-swelling senses of superiority, the mercantilist burglars accumulate these thank-you notes sent by these burglars’ ‘victims,’ but these burglars never, ever as much as think to actually use these note to get any goods from the ‘victims’ of their burglary.  The mercantilist burglars compete with each other to see which of them accumulates over time the largest number of such thank-you notes from their ‘victims.’  The burglar who accumulates the largest number of such notes wins, for it is he who obviously has deposited in strangers’ homes more furniture, fine jewelry, and high-quality consumer electronics than has any other burglar and who has most steadfastly exercised the muscular and manly will-power to refuse ever to accept from any ‘victim’ any goods in return.

This winning burglar declares himself to be “great.”  All the other burglars look upon this winning burglar with a mix of admiration and envy.  They all commit to redouble their efforts to make themselves great again by depositing record numbers of goods in strangers homes without ever taking anything from the strangers whose homes they mercantilist-burgle.

This article was adapted from these two articles published by Cafe Hayek.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.