Nonsense Ideas

Walter E. Williams

2/21/2007 12:01:00 AM - Walter E. Williams

There are some ideas and feelings that sound plausible but given just a wee bit of thought can be shown to border on lunacy. Let's examine a few.

Some U.S. companies have been accused of exploiting Third World workers with poor working conditions and low wages. Say that a U.S. company pays a Cambodian factory worker $3 a day. Do you think that worker had a higher-paying alternative but stupidly chose a lower-paying job instead? I'm betting the $3-a-day job was superior to his next best alternative.

Does offering a worker a wage higher than what he could earn elsewhere make him worse off or better off? If you answered better off, is the term exploitation an appropriate characterization for an act that makes another better off? If pressure at home forces a U.S. company to cease its Cambodian operations, would that worker be worse off or better off?

It might be a convenient expression to say that the U.S. trades with Japan, but is it literally true? Is it the U.S. Congress and President George Bush who trade with the National Diet of Japan, the Japanese legislature and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Or, is it U.S. and Japanese private parties, as individuals and corporations, who trade with one another?

Let's break it down further. Which comes closer to the truth: When I purchased my Lexus, did I deal with the U.S. Congress, the Japanese Diet, George Bush and Shinzo Abe, or did I deal with Toyota and its intermediaries? If we erroneously think of international trade as occurring between the U.S. and Japanese governments, then all Americans, as voters, have a say-so. But what is the basis of anyone having a say-so when one American engages in peaceable, voluntary exchange with another person, be they Japanese, Korean, British, Chinese or another American?

How many times have we heard: If it will save just one life, it's worth it? The "it" could be bike helmet laws, childproof medicine bottles, or formaldehyde and asbestos safety regulations. A good economist cringes hearing such statements because they only consider the benefits of an action while ignoring the cost. Looking at benefits only, just about anything is worth doing because there's usually a benefit. Let's look at it.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, some 43,443 people were killed on the nation's highways in 2005. If Congress were to enact a 10 miles per hour national speed limit, we'd save thousands of lives each year. You say, "Williams, that would be stupid and impractical!" My response to you is: But look at all the lives that would be saved. What you really mean by stupid and impractical is that preventing thousands of highway fatalities is not worth the cost and inconvenience that would result from having to poke along at 10 miles per hour. Of course, calling a 10 miles per hour law stupid and impractical is a more socially acceptable way of saying those saved lives aren't worth it.

How about academics and researchers seeing grinding Third World poverty and chalking it up to a "vicious cycle of poverty"? This vision of poverty sees people as too poor to save. That means they can't create investment capital. Because they can't invest, they can't develop, and that keeps them poor. In other words, people are poor because they're poor.

According to the "vicious cycle of poverty" vision, the only escape is foreign aid. The only way this theory of Third World poverty would have any credibility is if every country were poor. There's no country that wasn't at some time poor, including our own. If poverty is so vicious, how did today's rich countries escape it?