March 23, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

In a column that I wrote recently for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I listed a few of the myriad medical and public-health advances that were initiated outside of the United States. These advances include pasteurization, anesthesia, and antibiotics. I offered this list to help reveal some of the health-care upsides of globalization – upsides too-easily overlooked during a panic over a virus that apparently originated in a foreign country.

Some people might infer that today’s COVID-19 pandemic is a good reason to substantially isolate 329 million Americans, who are just over four percent of the world’s population, from the rest of the world’s 7.4 billion men, women, and children. After all, it’s true that cutting us Americans off from the rest of the world would indeed reduce our chances of contracting diseases – both physical and financial ones – that originate outside of the U.S. Yet any such severing of Americans’ commercial interactions with non-Americans would also deny to Americans access to nearly 96 percent of human creativity, effort, and problem-solving initiative, including such initiative related to health care.

“Absurd” is way too weak a word to describe the supposition that we Americans possess 100 percent, or even anything close to a majority, of the world’s creative potential. The best bet is that the amount of humanity’s creative potential that resides today in America is, roughly, just a bit above a measly four percent. This fact means, in turn, that almost 19 in every 20 ‘units’ of what Julian Simon identified as the “ultimate resource” – namely, human creativity – exists outside of the U.S.

And while it’s true that America does possess a disproportionately large share of the world’s current stock of institutions that encourage human creativity – the creativity of people in many other countries is suppressed by their governments or cultures – it’s foolish to believe that human creativity thrives only, or even chiefly, in America.

But even if, by some bizarre roll of nature’s dice, the gene pool in America contained all of humanity’s capacity for creativity on the health-care front, the case for free trade and globalization would remain very powerful. The reasons are several.

Creativity Isn’t Free

First, to be useful, creative capacity must be tapped. By making more abundant in America goods and services not conventionally thought of as health-care related, free trade increases both the practical ability and the incentives for more Americans to devote time to supplying health care and to doing medical research. Because trade increases the abundance in America of the likes of food, clothing, building materials, fuel, and automobiles, trade reduces the number of Americans who work to produce these non-health-care outputs. Larger amounts of American creativity and effort are thus made available for tasks directly connected to health-care.

Second and relatedly, even the most creative medical geniuses require for their practical success proper equipment and supplies. Medical researchers need tools and inputs such as test tubes, flasks, microscopes, chemicals, syringes, gloves, bandages, computer hardware and software, and even desks and other pieces of office furniture. 

The innovativeness and effort necessary to produce these items in high-enough quality – and to deliver these items reliably to labs and hospitals – might not be specific to medical research. But without such innovativeness and effort, even the most driven and inspired medical-research geniuses would produce very few, if any, medical breakthroughs. And so because the freer is trade the greater is the supply in the U.S. of the many different tools and inputs used in American medical-research facilities, the freer is trade the faster, more swollen, and more steady is the stream of American health-care innovation.

The Range of Health-Care Goods and Services is Very Wide

Third, even seemingly non-health-care-related goods and services nevertheless do, in quite a large number of cases, contribute in meaningful and positive ways to health care. Most obviously, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, industrial canning, inexpensive soaps, detergents, and household cleansers, along with disposable paper towels, provide substantial protection of ordinary people from diseases.

Even more importantly, though, is the fact that people who are well-fed, well-housed, and well-clothed are far less likely to contract and to spread diseases – and far more likely to be cured of diseases that are spread and contracted – than are people who are poorly fed, poorly housed, and poorly clothed.

And don’t overlook the contribution to good health of employment in air-conditioned offices as opposed to employment in the more hazard-filled factories and job sites of only just a few decades ago. If people such as President Trump and his trade advisor Peter Navarro get their way and see the protectionism that they advocate result in a return to America of the proportion of manufacturing jobs that reigned during (what is wrongly believed to have been) the American economy’s golden age of the mid-20th century, a much larger number of American workers would today find themselves toiling in more dangerous and less healthy conditions.

Likewise, if people such as Oren Cass and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) get their way and see the protectionism and industrial policy that they advocate slow the U.S. economy’s creative destruction, one unfortunate result would be a slowing of the movement of American workers from less healthy and more-hazardous workplaces into more healthy and less-hazardous ones. Not one in a million persons would notice the negative impact on health of this slowing, but just as invisible viruses are real and potentially lethal, so too are invisible impacts of such government interventions.

While (contrary to yet another myth) freer trade was not the principal direct reason for the shift of American workers out of manufacturing and into services, trade did – and continues to – contribute positively to this shift. It did do so directly sometimes, if not as often as many protectionists insist, by prompting American buyers to purchase more manufactured goods from abroad.

But freer trade contributed indirectly in a major manner to this shift away from manufacturing employment. Freer trade opened larger markets for the innovation that made possible many of the machines and chemical processes that ‘destroyed’ jobs in American factories. Able to sell the fruits of their innovations globally rather than only domestically, innovators have more incentive actually to innovate as well as enhanced opportunities to produce on larger scales – larger scales that reduce the per-unit costs of supplying the likes of machine tools and robotics. Thus available at lower costs, machines and other substitutes for factory workers are put in place more quickly and in greater numbers.

Years ago I started at my blog, Café Hayek, a series that I call “Cleaned by Capitalism.” In this series I document some of the countless contributions that free markets have made, and continue to make, to human health by cleansing the environment that we inhabit of many of the hazards and toxins that were commonplace just a few generations ago. As I assembled examples of how capitalism cleans our environment, I was struck by how enormous is the number of capitalist products that have positive health effects despite never being thought of in that vein.

Automatic washers and dryers, plastic packaging, the lightbulb, hard roofs, inexpensive underwear, and even the automobile and lowly asphalt are among the fruits of innovative markets that improve our health and increase our safety. And almost none of these health-enhancing goods would be as abundant as they currently are in America if trade were less free.

Let’s hope that this reality is grasped in time to prevent any further rejection of globalization.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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