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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Don Throws Tomatoes at Me

Here's a post from today at Cafe Hayek (I assume that since it's an "Open Letter" to me that I have every right to reprint it verbatim):


Open Letter to Commenter Bret Wallach

Bret Wallach

Mr. Wallach:

I close my recent “Elemental Case for Free Trade” with the following ethical argument: “if you work and earn income honestly, that income is yours to use as you choose.  You may use it to buy tomatoes from your neighbor or to buy tomatoes from a farmer in Mexico.  It’s your money.  It belongs neither to the state nor to any domestic producer.  Yet protectionist arguments rest on the premise that your tomato-growing neighbor has some positive claim on your income.  If you are prohibited from buying tomatoes from Mexico, or – more commonly today – penalized with a tariff for doing so, the state is insisting that domestic tomato growers have an ethical claim on part of your income.”

You disagree with my argument.  That is, you apparently believe that the state acts ethically if, in its efforts to increase sales made by existing domestic tomato growers, it penalizes you for using your own income to buy foreign-grown tomatoes.  Do you, then, also believe that the state would be acting ethically if, in its efforts to increase sales made by those same domestic tomato growers, it penalized you for using your own income to buy potting soil, fertilizer, and tomato seeds that you use to grow your own tomatoes?

If you believe that there’s nothing ethically objectionable about Uncle Sam penalizing you for spending your income in ways that cause the sales of some domestic producers to be lower than otherwise, surely you then have no objection to Uncle Sam penalizing you for growing your own tomatoes.  Nor must you object if Uncle Sam were to penalize you and other Americans for buying used rather than new cars (or, indeed, for putting off buying new cars by keeping your existing cars in good repair) – or for buying previously owned rather than newly build homes – or for growing beards rather than shaving daily (think of all the sales that Gillette loses because more men today wear facial hair!) – or for recycling aluminum cans and plastic cartons – or, indeed, for doing anything with your own resources that Uncle Sam judges to wrongfully reduce sales made by its favored domestic producers.

Do you, in short, believe that you have an ethical right to grow your own tomatoes with your own resources if you choose – a right that trumps other tomato-growers’ insistence that you instead buy your tomatoes from them?  If so, how do you square this belief with your insistence that it is ethically acceptable for the state to penalize you and others for spending parts your incomes on the purchase of imports?

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030


I'll (most likely) respond to Don in the next few days.

The gross simplification of Don's philosophy is "BUT FREEDOM!" where freedom to do as you see fit, as long as it's peaceful and voluntary for all parties, trumps (nearly) all other considerations. The gross simplification of my philosophy is "WHEN IN DOUBT, CHOOSE FREEDOM!" and that means that I basically believe that some ends can sometimes justify some means that might restrict peaceful, voluntary freedom, but the case for doing so has to be really strong. I think there's a lot of overlap, but I think that the hairs we split are important to some degree.


erp said...

It's what happens when government gets its big nose under the tent flap and takes over everything and parenthetically, isn't it about time you gave up your unseemly tomato habit anyway? :-)

O/t but very annoying. Why are so many conservative blogs and media outlets moving over to Facebook only for comments? Don't/won't do Facebook and probably never will.

Bret said...

Facebook comments cuts down on trolling a little bit. Apparently not very much though, since at least some of the commenters at Cafe Hayek consider me a troll! :-)

One of the reasons I really like this blog is that while every commenter is very intelligent there are no trolls ever!

erp said...

I check out the blog on the nonce and have made an occasional comment, but economics is pseudoscience IMO and I don't usually read posts like this one, i.e., the equivalence of academics counting the angels on the heads of pins.

As for trolls, I don't remember it being a problem there and now I'm not even sure of the definition of trolling. I thought it meant deliberately trying to be disruptive, not just expressing a difference of opinion.

BTW - where's your comment?

Bret said...

Do you not see my comment when you follow the second link? If not, perhaps it only allows facebook folks to see it? Well, here it is:


Nice summary.

I still don't find points two, three, and six believable (at least not unbounded), nor do I find the ethics argument compelling. As a result, I don't find the case for free trade compelling.

Point two: a person's place in society is more defined by what he or she produces, not what he or she consumes.

Points three and six: I agree that specialization expands output - to a certain point. There's nothing in the universe that's infinitely scalable and I'm convinced that economic activity is not exception.

Lastly, just because you prefer to believe that the collective has no claim upon you doesn't mean the lack thereof is the only possible ethical arrangement.

erp said...

Both links opened, but as they both went to original post, I didn't think to scroll down to comments.

When Facebook is used for comments, a non-subscriber can read the blog and comments, but cannot comment.

Can you expand on what you mean by the collective has no claim upon you. With our rights come responsibilities and as citizens we agree to comply with our governing documents ... , but why do you believe the "collective" which perhaps has members who don't share our values, laws, etc. have any claim on us?

Here's an example: we, here on the Atlantic coast of Florida in the wake of hurricane Matthew have been declared eligible for FEMA largesse and we just received an email from our little (pop. 4,000) city's elected officials which outlines all the goodies available to those who are uninsured or under-insured or who have other claims on the taxpayer's dollar.

Why should people like us pay thousands of dollars to insure our homes, cars, etc. when the collective, i.e., those who opt to not to do so, have an ethical claim on us to "make them whole" without the bother and expense of their being responsible for themselves.

I think I'm with Don on this one.

Bret said...


You may well be with Don on this one. However, I'll get around to writing a response at some point and we'll see what you think then. Note that I won't be arguing that he's wrong, only that he's not inherently right.

erp said...

I'll look forward reading to your argument. Glad you're busy and productive.