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A True Labor Representative

September 1, 2006

Aware that their government exemption from the competition of workers willing to work for less stops at the border, labor unions and the politicians they rent are the primary force behind protectionism today.

Union strategy, presented as the agenda of labor (rather than that of the leaders of union labor) and disguised behind excuses ranging from environmental protection to patriotism to threats to sovereignty, is to punish any candidate who stands up for expanding anyone's freedom to arrange their own economic affairs. A free trader would be anathema to them. But "labor" has not always been so hostile to the principle of freedom that is, in fact, the primary source of worker well-being.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Henry George. In his 1886 Protection or Free Trade? [available in PDF from the Mises.org Study Guide], he set out "to determine whether protection of free trade better accords with the interest of labor." He demolished one protectionist fallacy after another, and demonstrated the superiority of the case for free trade. Yet despite his unalloyed support of free trade, he was persuaded to run for mayor of New York as the labor organization candidate in 1886, coming in second (but ahead of future President Teddy Roosevelt). He was drafted to run again in 1897, but died four days before the election.

Because nothing even remotely endorsing moves to free trade comes out of the mouth or public relations machine of a "labor" politician today, on Labor Day, it is worth remembering labor candidate Henry George's case for why free trade is in the true interest of workers.

  • "…protection is a delusion and a snare…"

  • "Free trade is the natural trade — the trade that goes on in the absence of artificial restrictions. It is protection that had to be invented."

  • "…protection … conflicts with those ideas of natural right and personal freedom which received national expression in the establishment of the American Republic…"

  • "The protection of the masses has in all times been the pretense of tyranny … of special privilege of every kind … is there an instance in the history of the world in which the 'protection' of the laboring classes has not meant their oppression?"

  • "…the protective theory is destitute of scientific basis … instead of originating in any deduction from principles or induction from facts, it has been invented merely to serve the purpose of its inventors."

  • "…protection really prevents what the 'protected' themselves want to do. It is not from foreigners that protection preserves and defends us; it is from ourselves."

  • "Trade … does not involve aggression on one side and resistance on the other, but mutual consent … what was done was not to force the people to trade, but to force their governments to let them."

  • "Trade does not require force. Free trade consists simply in letting people buy and sell as they want to buy and sell. It is protection that requires force, for it consists in preventing people from doing what they want to do. Protective tariffs are as much applications of force as are blockading squadrons, and their object is the same — to prevent trade … What protection teaches us is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war."

  • "…as trade becomes free and extensive … so does wealth augment and civilization grow … Trade has ever been the extinguisher of war, the eradicator of prejudice, the diffuser of knowledge. It is by trade that … men in one place have been enabled not only to obtain the products, but to profit by the observations, discoveries and inventions of men in other places."

  • "Protection … protect[s] ourselves against something which offends no moral law; something to which we are instinctively impelled; something without which we could never have emerged from barbarism, and something which physical nature and social laws alike prove to be in conformity with the creative intent.

  • "If the end of labor be, not the expenditure of effort, but the securing of results, then whether any particular thing ought to be obtained in a country by home production, or by importation, depends solely upon which mode of obtaining it will give the largest result to the least labor … it can safely be left only to those sure instincts … which always impel men to take the easiest way open to them to reach their ends."

  • "…restrictions are harmful because they restrict, and in proportion as they restrict. To assert that the way for men to become healthy and strong is for them to … control the circulation of their blood by ligatures, would be not a whit more absurd than to assert that the way for nations to become rich is for them to restrict the natural tendency to trade."

  • "…to secure free trade we have only to abolish restrictions."

  • "…the fixing of protective duties is simply the distribution of pecuniary favors among a crowd of greedy applicants."

  • "The making of a tariff … is in practice simply a great 'grab' in which the retained advocates of selfish interests bully and beg, bribe and logroll, in the endeavor to get the largest possible protection for themselves without regard for other interests or for the general good. "

  • "All experience shows that the policy of encouragement, once begun, leads to a scramble in which it is the strong, not the weak; the unscrupulous, not the deserving, that succeed. What are really infant industries have no more chance in the struggle for governmental encouragement than infant pigs have with full-grown swine about a meal-tub…the ability of any industry to establish and sustain itself in a free field is the measure of its public utility, and that 'struggle for existence' which drives out unprofitable industries is the best means of determining what industries are needed under existing conditions and what are not … the only safe course is to give to all 'a fair field and no favor'.'

  • "…only a small part of the industries of a country can thus be 'encouraged'…[it] enables the favored producer to collect 'encouragement' from his fellow-citizens in higher prices…the gain to some involves loss to others…the claim popularly made for protection, that it encourages home industry (i.e., all home industry), can be true only in one sense — the sense in which Pharaoh encouraged Hebrew industry when he compelled the making of bricks without straw. Protective tariffs make more work, in the sense in which the spilling of grease over her kitchen floor makes more work for the housewife, or as a rain that wets his hay makes more work for the farmer."

  • "It may be to the interest of a shopkeeper that the people of his neighborhood should be prohibited from buying from any one but him, so that they must take such goods as he chooses to keep, at such prices as he chooses to charge, but who would contend that this was to the general advantage?"

  • "…all these special pleas for protection are met when it is shown, as it can be shown, that …a country can always increase its wealth by foreign trade…Trade between them will give to each country a greater amount of all things than it could otherwise obtain with the same quantity of labor."

  • "Other nations may injure us by the imposition of taxes which tend to impoverish their own citizens…But no other nation can thus injure us so much as we shall injure ourselves if we impose similar taxes upon our own citizens by way of retaliation."

  • "…those who say that a nation should adopt a policy essentially bad because other nations have embraced it are as unwise as those who say, Lie, because others are false; Be idle, because others are lazy; Refuse knowledge, because others are ignorant."

  • "…to introduce a tariff bill into a congress or parliament is like throwing a banana into a cage of monkeys. No sooner is it proposed to protect one industry than all the industries that are capable of protection begin to screech and scramble for it."

  • "But were the whole system abolished there can be no doubt that American industry would spring forward with new vigor."

  • "…since, free trade being natural trade, the onus of proof must lie upon those who would restrict it…anything that reduces the aggregate income of the community must be injurious to working-men."

  • "…the tendency of tariff restrictions on trade is to lessen the production of wealth. But protective tariffs also operate to alter the distribution of wealth…the impelling motive with those most active in procuring the imposition of protective duties and in warning work-men of the dire calamities that will come on them if such duties are repealed. But … The direct object and effect of protective tariffs is to raise the price of commodities. But men who work for wages are not sellers of commodities; they are sellers of labor. They sell labor in order that they may buy commodities. How can increase in the price of commodities benefit them? … the effect of a protective tariff is to increase the amount of labor for which certain commodities will exchange. Hence it reduces the value of labor…"

By endlessly reiterating long-disproved claims and arguments, unions have continued to finesse the fact that all protectionism must by its nature harm the vast majority and "sell" many on those beliefs. But Henry George recognized that "while keen enough as to their individual interests, these producers are as blind to social interests as any other class." And he saw that protectionists' own behavior — "Protectionists are only protectionists in theory and politics. When it comes to buying what they want all protectionists are free traders" — revealed that they did not really believe their own propaganda.

That is why Henry George's work, which debunks the logic of not only the "old" arguments for protection, but also the "new and improved" twists that build on those fallacies, merits renewed attention. It reveals that "labor" protectionism is not valid, but "has been invented merely to serve the purpose of its inventors," and that for workers to advance their true interests, "instead of accepting protection, what labor should demand is freedom."

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