Opponents of free-trade like to make claims that, “it is just too hard for people to retrain and adjust to losing jobs” when we allow free trade. I want to comment on a metaphysical aspect of this, not an economic one (though I imagine some of you would like me to point out the basic economic problem with such thinking).
Suppose we concede that point to trade opponents. Let us ask what is unique about taking this position on trade? I suspect many people have no problem with having “open borders” when it comes to marriage and dating. But why would not oppose free-trade in spouses too? After all, if a young woman from the US meets and marries a smart guy from Japan, this means that “we have lost” one potential mate for an American male. Is this tragic? Should we outlaw it? Should we institute “marriage adjustment assistance” for the man who now finds himself out of a relationship (to dramatize it, suppose he was dumped by our American women expressly to marry the Japanese man).
After all, think of the emotional devastation the loss of a relationship imposes on people. Think of how hard it is to meet new people, find some with compatible interests, find one that wants what you want, and having to go through the entire awkward (and perhaps expensive) process of learning about her and teaching her about you, and all of the things that go into building a relationship. I would argue that these are far more serious costs imposed on people than the loss of a job, even of a very good job. After all, if you are willing to capitalize on the basic skills you have, there is virtually an unlimited number of things you could do in the labor market to at least earn enough to feed, clothe and house oneself. You can do it almost anonymously and probably with one-hundreth the effort it would take to find a new mate.
Again, I emphasize that I am not talking about the economics of trade here, rather I am asking a question about logical consistency. And if one does not get all worked up about free-trade in spouses, why is it that free-trade in goods is special? After all, I have heard for years about how crass materialism corrupts us and that we need to appreciate the deeper things in life – … like spouses. Are there other examples you can think of? As per the title of the post, my prediction is that if you asked a layperson if they were worried about free trade in spouses causing distress, I bet their answer would look like, “well, there are lots of other fish in the sea,” which resembles the argument that free traders like to make, even if it wholly avoids the human side of the debate (which again, is something free traders should emphasize not shy away from, but that’s for another post).