Steven Landsburg on ugly protectionism

In a column he wrote in 2005, the renowned economist Steven Landsburg compared the “Buy American” campaign to racism. In the column, titled “Why protectionism is a lot like racism,” he wrote:

Landsburg: 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.

The Fox News Channel’s John Gibson got wind of Landsburg’s offensive comparison and invited him on to his television program “The Big Story” to answer for his horrendous lapse in judgment.

Gibson struggles to understand Landsburg’s argument, as evidenced by the first question he asks him:

Gibson: Professor, today’s big question: So why is buying American racist?

Landsburg: I haven’t said it’s racist. I’ve said that it’s ugly and it’s ugly in the same way that racism is ugly.

The interview goes down hill from there:

Gibson: Well, let me back up. The headline says, “Why protectionism is a lot like racism.”

Landsburg: A lot like racism. Yes, it’s a lot like racism. That’s not exactly the same as being…

Gibson: You can nuance it, but I get your drift. Why is it a lot like racism?

Landsburg: Well, the easiest way to see that it’s a lot like racism is take the rhetoric of politicians who have pushed this issue, look at what they’re saying about how we have to encourage companies to hire more Americans; we have to save American jobs; we have to buy American. Replace the word “American” with “white” throughout that and you will not be able to tell any difference between that rhetoric and the rhetoric that we have from David Duke.

Still unable to grasp that Landsburg is not arguing that protectionism is the same as racism, Gibson continues:

Gibson: Yes, but we’re looking at these pictures right now of a factory in Detroit. It’s not white. They’re black, they’re Hispanic, they’re white, they come from white…

Landsburg: Absolutely. And we are being asked to care more about those people because they happen to have been born in Detroit than other people because they happen to have been born in Juarez or Tokyo or wherever.

Gibson: That’s what nationalism is.

Landsburg: That’s not a whole lot different from being asked to care more about people because they’re white than because they’re black.

Later on, Landsburg asks Gibson why we should care more about auto workers in Detroit than those in Juárez, México. If you’ve read up until this point, you can guess Gibson’s response:

Gibson: Well, professor, they’re my fellow Americans. I care about people in Juarez, they’re nice Mexicans. But, my fellow Americans come first.

Landsburg: In one case they’re people who share your nationality. In the other case, they’re people who share your race. Why is one a legitimate difference to discriminate and the other not?

Gibson: Well because it’s not race! And professor, it’s a bad example. There’s a lot of black people in Detroit and I’m all for those black people in Detroit.

Landsburg: What’s different about race? What’s special about race? What is special about race that makes it bad to discriminate on the basis of race, but not bad to discriminate on the basis of nationality? What’s the difference?

Gibson: “Stealing assets is wrong,” you write, “and so is stealing the right to earn a living.”

Landsburg: You don’t want to answer it.

Gibson: I don’t think it deserves an answer.

After Landsburg’s segment ends, Gibson invites on another economist who is just as confused as he is. Economist Mike Norman, founder of the Economic Contrarian Update, is also against protectionism, but doesn’t care for the comparison to racism.

Gibson: So, I know you are also not in favor of protectionism. Do you subscribe to these arguments [Landsburg’s arguments]?

Norman: No, absolutely not. These are the most extreme and convoluted and, frankly, bizarre arguments that I’ve ever heard. To try to equate, “Let’s protect American jobs with racism,” is absolutely ludicrous. Look, we don’t hear the professor criticizing the Chinese and the Japanese and the Taiwanese and the rest of the Asian countries…

Gibson: OK. But Mike, you’re on his side in terms of…

Norman: Only in terms of — I’m not saying it’s racism! That’s ridiculous!

Gibson: Here’s my problem: since you’re on his side on the issue of protectionism, why do you find his arguments so uncomfortable?

Norman: Because I think he’s going with some kind of a moral argument. This is not an economic argument. And he’s taking it totally out of context. And it’s inflammatory, as you said. I think it’s taking it to an extreme, which is unjustifiable from an economic standpoint. And that’s why I’m uncomfortable with it. I don’t equate it to racism.

Who needs morality when we have all these graphs and equations to tell us what to do!

Ok, you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to respond to a couple of knuckleheads like John Gibson and Mike Norman when their errors are so obvious. But I’m not responding to them. I’m writing this blog post for Steven Landsburg.

Landsburg tries to get Gibson to answer what the difference is between protectionism (actually “patriotism”) and racism, which Gibson glibly declines. That was a good effort, and it showed that Gibson should not have his own television show, but I think Landsburg could have made his case even better.

Landsburg should have begun the conversation like this:

Favoring Americans over foreigners is wrong because citizenship is not a morally relevant characteristic.

Then he should have asked Gibson, “Why is citizenship a morally relevant characteristic?” Gibson could have easily responded, “I don’t think it deserves an answer” but at least Gibson would not have wasted time with this “It’s not racism!” crap.

What Landsburg tried to express, without ever actually saying it explicitly, is that racial and national discrimination are wrong for the same reason, namely that race and citizenship are both morally irrelevant characteristics.

In retrospect, he should not have made the comparison to racism, because that opened the door for easily confused people like Gibson and Norman to misunderstand him and think that he was calling protectionists racists, which he wasn’t. He was saying that racists and protectionists are committing the same kind of mistake.

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4 Responses to “Steven Landsburg on ugly protectionism”

  1. stephanie Says:

    Excellent post! I find that a lot of people with a media pulpit are confused…

  2. JIM Says:

    Well, I agree with you I’m going to say first. However, I like to be controversial just to give people something to think about.

    What if perfect “morality” was never a desirable concept? That in fact, our “morals” existed throughout history only so far as they benefited us, and they weren’t really useful beyond that capacity. Dawkins and the Selfish Gene:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selfish_Gene

    What if you don’t care about foreigners, people from tribes other than yours, religion, etc—because it doesn’t help you (evolutionary speaking)? Have a tight knit group like a country can have economic advantages for the people involved in that country. Protectionism. That would seem to go the way that organisms in nature, even of different species, work together for mutual benefit– but at the cost of other organisms.

    I mean sure you can make the argument that bias by virtue of nationalism isn’t consistent with someone’s moral principles. However, what if Gibson says, “Helping my fellow citizens first is my moral principle.” Morality is relative.

    Anyway, I’m going to stop these relativistic arguments. I think anyone reading gets the picture. Nice Post–very well done.

  3. JIM Says:

    Also, one could say that I have a bias in favor of this country (the US) because I think it has the best chance of moving humans forward technologically, ecologically, etc, but they may need to exploit others in the meantime to survive. So in the end, the outcome will best for humanity as a whole. Who knows, it could be true, but it’d be an awfully difficult argument to make.

  4. MPS Security Says:

    MPS Security…

    […]Steven Landsburg on ugly protectionism « Andy Hallman's Blog[…]…

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