Keeping the Faith


This Washington Post profile of supply sider–cum-neoprotectionist Paul Craig Roberts—in the headline and early parts of the article, anyway—and this Bob Herbert column both retread the irritating, psychologizing notion that supporters of free markets are "believers," adherents of some inscrutable faith, mindlessly reciting the catechism of St. Adam Smith. In a sense, this is necessary: As the Post piece emphasizes—though with the unfortunate implication that this makes him a bold iconoclast, rather than simply wrong—Roberts is running against the overwhelming consensus among professional economists. So to explain why most other qualified people take this position, the anti-traders need to come up with some sort of narrative that invalidates their views.

Anyway, both pieces raise an objection we're likely to see repeated more and more this election season: That trade defenders have "faith" that it will create jobs in the long term, without being able to say in advance where those jobs will emerge. But of course, as Friedrich Hayek observed, this is one of the best arguments in favor of letting the market work: If it were possible to know in advance how capital and labor would be allocated, the case against economic planning or management would be much weakened. The argument is obviously a general one, like most of the rest in economics: You may not know who will enter a sector with high profit margins and low barriers to entry, but there are plenty of sound economic reasons to think that someone will. Demanding that market advocates in either case play psychic is a pointless game that misses the point.