Sunday, July 30, 2006

Imports are always a good, by definition

Mercantilist thinking lives on, 230 years after it should have died.

The Flemish Beerdrinker lays out the truth.

Adam Smith had it right:

Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brick-maker, the brick-layer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the mill-wright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them. Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress and household furniture, the coarse linen shirt which he wears next his skin, the shoes which cover his feet, the bed which he lies on, and all the different parts which compose it, the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals, the coals which he makes use of for that purpose, dug from the bowels of the earth, and brought to him perhaps by a long sea and a long land carriage, all the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his victuals, the different hands employed in preparing his bread and his beer, the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the wind and the rain, with all the knowledge and art requisite for preparing that beautiful and happy invention, without which these northern parts of the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation, together with the tools of all the different workmen employed in producing those different conveniencies; if we examine, I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated.

If someone else can provide you with stuff you want more cheaply than you can make it for yourself, it makes you better off if the government allows you to buy it from that other source.

1 comment:

Dirty Davey said...

A caveat--this assumes either (a) that the people, acting through government, have no interest whatsoever in regulating manufacturing industries, or that (b) any desired regulation of manufacturing is for ends that have no importance if the manufacturing is abroad.

If "we" believe that things like safe working conditions, non-coerced labor, collective bargaining, and limits on factory pollution are (a) good and desirable things, and (b) good for everyone not just "us", then there are reasons

The question is whether the phrase "stuff you want" allows us to consider "a shirt made by prison labor" and "a shirt made by by willing labor" to be equivalent "stuff" or not.

Of course, in a strictly self-interested sense one could argue that "you" are better off with the low price and a government that protects "you" from coerced labor, and folks living under other regimes are Not Your Problem. Then again, conditions elsewhere may have long-term geopolitical implications, which may eventually make the true price of that shirt a bit more than what the Wal-Mart tag shows.