Free or Fair?

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At first blush,
the mercantilists’ call for “free trade but fair trade” sounds reasonable.
After all, who can be against fairness? Giving the idea just a bit
of thought suggests that fairness as a guide for public policy lays
the groundwork for tyranny. You say, “Williams, I’ve never heard
anything so farfetched! Explain yourself.”

Think about
the First Amendment to our Constitution that reads: Congress shall
make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or
of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,
and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

How many
of us would prefer that the Founders had written the First Amendment
so as to focus on fairness rather than freedom and instead wrote:
Congress shall make no unfair laws respecting an establishment of
religion, or prohibiting the fair exercise thereof; or abridging
the fairness of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people
to peaceably assemble in a fair fashion, and to fairly petition
the Government for a redress of grievances”?

How supportive
would you be to a person who argued that he was for free religion
but fair religion, or he was for free speech but fair speech? Would
you be supportive of government efforts to limit unfair religion
and unfair speech? How might life look under a regime of fairness
of religion, speech and the press?

Suppose a newspaper
published a statement like “President Obama might easily end his
term alongside Jimmy Carter as one of America’s worse presidents.”
Some people might consider that fair speech while other people denounce
it as unfair speech. What to do? A tribunal would have to be formed
to decide on the fairness or unfairness of the statement. It goes
without saying that the political makeup of the tribunal would be
a matter of controversy. Once such a tribunal was set up, how much
generalized agreement would there be on what it decreed? And, if
deemed unfair speech, what should the penalties be?

The bottom
line is that what’s fair or unfair is an elusive concept and the
same applies to trade. Last summer, I purchased a 2010 LS 460 Lexus,
through a U.S. intermediary, from a Japanese producer for $70,000.
Here’s my question to you: Was that a fair or unfair trade? I was
free to keep my $70,000 or purchase the car. The Japanese producer
was free to keep his Lexus or sell me the car. As it turned out,
I gave up my $70,000 and took possession of the car, and the Japanese
producer gave up possession of the car and took possession of my
money. The exchange occurred because I saw myself as being better
off and so did the Japanese producer. I think it was both free and
fair trade, and I’d like an American mercantilist to explain to
me how it wasn’t.

Mercantilists
have absolutely no argument when we recognize that trade is mostly
between individuals. Mercantilists pretend that trade occurs between
nations such as U.S. trading with England or Japan to appeal to
our jingoism. First, does the U.S. trade with Japan and England?
In other words, is it members of the U.S. Congress trading with
their counterparts in the Japanese Diet or the English Parliament?
That’s nonsense. Trade occurs between individuals in one country,
through intermediaries, with individuals in another country.

Who might
protest that my trade with the Lexus manufacturer was unfair? If
you said an American car manufacturer and their union workers, go
to the head of the class. They would like Congress to restrict foreign
trade so that they can sell their cars at a pleasing price and their
workers earn a pleasing wage. As a matter of fact, it’s never American
consumers who complain about cheaper prices. It’s always American
producers and their unions who do the complaining. That ought to
tell us something.

December
28, 2010

Walter
E. Williams is the John M. Olin distinguished professor of economics
at George Mason University, and a nationally syndicated columnist.
To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other
Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators
Syndicate web page
.

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