Protectionism would create bad results

By Walter Williams

Recent advocacy of free trade in this column has caused considerable reader apoplexy and anxiety, not to mention accusations of unconcern with worker plight. Readers have protested loss of good paying jobs to low-wage countries such as India, China and other Asian countries.
I’d like to propose a way to completely eliminate this angst, and I’m wondering just how many of my fellow Americans would support it.
Let’s call it the Level Playing Field Act, where Congress decrees that: Neither a corporation nor an individual shall be permitted to employ a cheaper method of producing a good or service.
The Level Playing Field Act would be a blessing for all those highly paid workers in the high-tech, auto, steel and other industries who see their jobs going to overseas workers earning far less than half their wages. To produce the most successful outcome, Congress would have to complement this law with a similar decree on the consumer side of things, namely: Neither a corporation nor an individual shall be permitted to purchase a cheaper good or service.
This job-saving measure wouldn’t only apply to jobs lost to low-wage countries, but it would also apply to automation caused by job-destroying machines. England’s 19th century Luddites understood this very well, but they took matters into their own hands and went about destroying job-destroying machinery.
I can sympathize with the Luddites. After all, it’s no less painful to a worker who loses his job because the corporation has moved his job overseas than to a worker who loses his job to a cost-saving machine.
Either way, he’s out of a job.
Being 67 years old, I’ve witnessed a lot of job destruction. As a young man, I enjoyed watching road construction. At that time, road construction required enormous teams of men doing everything from using jackhammers and pickaxes to dig up cracked pavement to using long two-by-fours to even out and finish the concrete. We just don’t see much of this now. These good-paying jobs have been destroyed by huge machines operated by a few men who do the work that took hundreds of men to do yesteryear. Had the Level Playing Field Act been on the books, we’d still have those jobs.
Job-destroying machines haven’t spared women. Yesteryear, thousands of women had good-paying jobs as telephone switchboard operators.
Switching machines and later computers destroyed those jobs. Five and dime stores had one or two ladies behind every counter to help customers.
Checkout stands and packaging have destroyed all of those jobs. The Level Playing Field Act would have saved those jobs.
Then there’s the consumer side of things. Years ago, there were loads of corner grocery and hardware stores. Because of selfish consumers, motivated only by getting something cheap and not caring about what happens to small businessmen and their employees, these stores are mostly gone.
They’ve been replaced by huge, impersonal supermarket chains and super hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s. Had my proposed law been on the books, small grocery and hardware stores would not have gone the way of the dinosaur.
Some people might argue that what I’m proposing is too extreme.
They might say, “We’re just talking about saving all of our high-tech and manufacturing jobs going overseas.” Such a position seems selfish and self-serving in the least. After all, one of the overriding values of a free society is equality before the law. That means if Congress takes a measure to save the job of one American, it’s obliged to save the jobs of all Americans. No worker is more deserving than another. That means there can’t be job-saving discrimination.

Walter Williams writes for Creators Syndicate.