Economic pessimism, sadly, is always in fashion. I suspect that if Deirdre McCloskey and I had titled our book Let Us Run Your Lives Or Everybody Dies: How the Bolshevik and Bureaucratic Deals Will Keep You Safe and Secure in the Age of Pandemics and Terrorism and Environmental Catastrophe rather than Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World, we’d probably sell more copies.
Time and again, pessimism has failed to explain or predict how things will turn out. At the level of the industry, people worry about red-blooded, square-jawed American workers being replaced by machines, or worse, by foreigners. Even white-collar jobs, it seems, aren’t safe from Schumpeter’s perennial gales of creative destruction. The case for “Saving the X Industry” has always been pretty weak. I don’t think it has gotten any better.
Growing up, my favorite comic strip was Bloom County. Indeed, I would think that a lot of what I know about the world I learned in part–or was inspired in part–by the adventures of Milo, Binkley, Opus, Cutter John, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the rest. In one series of strips, the ne’er-do-well Steve Dallas has his brain reversed by aliens–called “Gephardtization”–and becomes a sensitive progressive. He’d be “woke” in 2020–though I suspect he would be one false step or poorly-worded Tweet from cancellation.
In one strip, the penguin Opus is (yet again) nominated as Bill the Cat’s running mate for the Meadow Party presidential ticket in 1988. Steve presents him with a proposal to help a struggling industry–note that this is around the same time Farm Aid started–with the claim that an entire American way of life is dying out “because the government won’t help out!”
His proposal? “Slide-Rule Aid.”
It’s manifestly silly. Slide rules went extinct largely due to the widespread diffusion of cheap calculators and computers. We’re not worse off because the slide-rule industry has effectively disappeared. Indeed, what would have happened had slide rules been propped up? What would have been the alternative use of the resources? What would we lack? Surely, we would be poorer. We would have labor, capital, and skill tied up in manufacturing slide rules that are effectively useless.
The slide rule was, like the pocket calculator after it, a type of artificial intelligence. We have voted, in massive numbers with massive numbers of our hard-earned dollars, for pocket calculators and now smartphones. But haven’t we lost something because of the demise of the slide rule industry? Maybe, but there’s another side to the coin. We lose something else–and something that is much more important, as measured by people’s willingness to pay with their hard-earned money–if we decide to divert resources toward propping up slide rules.
Farm Aid. Maybe you’ve seen the bumper sticker: “If America doesn’t Farm, America doesn’t eat.” Well, no. There’s reason to think we should farm. If America doesn’t farm, America…does something else and buys food from elsewhere. As a friend in grad school once put it, ‘Buy American and Americans pay too much for meat.” Corn produced on a small family farm is not automatically more virtuous than mass-produced corn from one of the miles and miles of cornfields across the Midwest. Local produce usually tastes better, in my experience, but if people aren’t willing to vote for local produce with their hard-earned money, then the additional quality is just waste.
Steel. Tariffs and protectionism are classic examples of the seen and the unseen in public policy. It’s easy to see brawny steelworkers doing masculine, dangerous work and being compensated handsomely for it. If it’s cheaper to import steel, then we are wasting resources by producing it domestically. Protecting the domestic steel industry is Slide-Rule Aid that handicaps a lot of potential steel-drivin’ men and women who would be working in (for example) commercial construction but who aren’t because steel is too expensive.
Textiles. A lot of people think free trade is good if it allows us to export, and I recently saw a political ad touting a candidate who pledges to get tough on foreign governments that “cheat on trade deals.” That cheat…how? By offering us more goods and services for the fruit of our labor? I’m reminded of Frederic Bastiat’s explanation in Economic Sophisms. This line of thinking holds that plenty is actually poverty and paucity is actually prosperity. It’s true, free trade forecloses opportunities in some fields (manufacturing shirts) but opens them in others (making sure those shirts get to those who value them most highly).
Schools. Consider the phrase “public schools.” Are they important because they’re schools? Or are they important because they’re public? What’s the relative weight of each? That this or that innovation–charter schools, for example–poses a threat to the model with which many people are comfortable is irrelevant. If they do a better (or even the same) job at a lower price, then we should welcome them and start looking for new ways to deploy those saved resources.
If you’re not convinced, I encourage you to check out “Saving the X Industry,” which is chapter 14 of this version of Henry Hazlitt’s classic Economics in One Lesson. Saving one industry means hurting another, and I cannot help but wonder: what troubles have we endured and what progress have we sacrificed in order to protect obsolete producers of soybeans, steel, shirts, schooling…and slide rules?
This article explores one of the themes in chapter 9 of Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World, available from booksellers everywhere.