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On My Mind
Xenophobia and Politics
Steven E. Landsburg, 03.28.05



Why protectionism is a lot like racism.

Not long ago in American history accidents of birth were considered legitimate grounds for employment discrimination. Political platforms contained phrases like: "Federal contracts, whenever possible, should be performed by white workers." Politicians demanded tax incentives to reward firms for hiring whites instead of blacks or showing other kinds of favoritism. Those same politicians endorsed "Right to Know" legislation to alert consumers when products were produced by the "wrong" kind of workers. They embraced slogans like "Buy white!"

When I say this kind of thing was commonplace "not long ago," I really mean not long ago. Except for one minor and morally insignificant difference, I got all of the above from John Kerry's Web site. The only change I made is this: Where Kerry said "American," I substituted "white."

It's not just Kerry, of course. Both major parties (and most of the minor ones) are infested with protectionist fellow travelers who would discriminate on the basis of national origin no less virulently than David Duke or any other overt racist would discriminate on the basis of skin color. But if racism is morally repugnant-and it is-then so is xenophobia, and for exactly the same reasons.

Now hold on a minute, you might say. Isn't the U.S. government elected by Americans to serve Americans? Indeed, don't governments exist in the first place for the express purpose of favoring their own citizens? The U. S. Army discriminates by defending American soil more vigorously than the soil of, say, Peru. We discriminate against Icelanders by locating our interstate highways in North America for our own convenience rather than in Reykjavik for theirs. So why shouldn't American government policies favor American workers at the expense of foreigners?

I have answers.

First: Yes, the U.S. government is elected by Americans to serve Americans. There was a time when a lot of southern sheriffs could have said they'd been elected by white citizens to serve white citizens. It does not follow that it's okay to run roughshod over the rights of everyone else.

Second: Defense and interstate highways are great collective undertakings. We pay for them through our taxes. It makes sense that those who pay the costs should reap the benefits. It is no more inappropriate for the U.S. Army to defend Americans instead of Peruvians than it is for Burger King to provide food for Burger King customers instead of McDonald's customers.

But the labor market isn't like that at all. When General Motors hires an American in Detroit or a Mexican in Ciudad Juarez, the rest of us are not footing the bill. And that makes it none of our business. Nor should we want it to be.

I hold this truth to be self-evident: It is just plain ugly to care more about total strangers in Detroit than about total strangers in Juarez. Of course we care most about the people closest to us-our families more than our friends and our friends more than our acquaintances. But once you start talking about total strangers, they all ought to be on pretty much the same footing. You could say you care more about white strangers than black strangers because you've got more in common with whites. Does that make it okay to punish firms for hiring blacks?

It's also worth mentioning that laws intended to "protect" Americans raise the price of goods that Americans buy. I won't dwell on this because it's already obvious to anyone with a dollop of economic literacy. Besides, it's tangential to my main point, which is this: Even if Kerry-style (or Nader-style or Buchanan-style) protectionism could improve Americans' well-being at the expense of foreigners, it would still be wrong.

After all, if it's okay to enrich ourselves by denying foreigners the right to earn a living, why not enrich ourselves by invading peaceful countries and seizing their assets? Most of us don't think that's a good idea, and not just because it might backfire. We don't think it's a good idea because we believe human beings have human rights, whatever their color and wherever they live. Stealing assets is wrong, and so is stealing the right to earn a living, no matter where the victim was born.



Steven E. Landsburg, economics professor at the University of Rochester


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