Beneath the Mask

In his book Minority Report, H.L. Mencken writes: “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.  Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.  This is true even of the pious brethren who carry the gospel [sic] to foreign parts.”  

With a little rewriting, we can update the quote for protectionism:

“The urge to defend the nation is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.  Power is what all protectionists seek: not the chance to serve.”

National defense is a common justification for protectionist tariffs, and it has been driven to absurd extremes: clothespins, sugar, and baby food have all been described as vital to national defense and subject to tariffs.  

In a particularly goofy example, Senator Rick Scott of Florida has called for a ban on Chinese-grown garlic on the grounds it threatens national security.  Now, perhaps if we were a nation of vampires, this claim would make sense.  But it’s hard to see how garlic, even garlic that is potentially tainted, is a threat to national security.  Scott argues that the garlic poses a potential health threat, but that is not the same as a national security threat.

What is weird about the argument Scott is putting forth is that he does not need to ban Chinese garlic as a national security threat if it is as dangerous as he claims.  We already have a food safety program here in the US, and foreign goods are also subject to it.  If Chinese garlic is a public health threat, the FDA has the authority to act by issuing recalls and otherwise effectively banning the tainted product if it poses a threat to human or animal health.  It’s unclear why Senator Scott’s act is needed.

To go back to a theme I have been harping on in recent posts, any intervention needs to be justified beyond just some hypothetical musing.  Simply showing that some intervention could accomplish some desired outcome does not mean the action is justified or desirable.  We need to examine the current state of laws and legislation to see if the intervention is actually justified, or if it is just rank corruption hiding behind a false-face.  One question Senator Scott (or others who defend this intervention) must answer is: why is the current legislation inadequate?  It is already illegal to sell tainted food in the US.  If Chinese garlic is such a threat, why hasn’t the FDA shut it down?

National defense is one of those justifications that people don’t seem to think about that much.  It is invoked and simply not questioned.  Indeed, this is probably why “national defense” is such a successful false-face to rent-seek: few look too closely at the mask.  Perhaps, like the partygoers at Poe’s masquerade in the Masque of the Read Death, the people who support spurious national defense claims are afraid to see what lies beneath that mask.

 


Jon Murphy is an assistant professor of economics at Nicholls State University.

READER COMMENTS

David Henderson
May 18 2024 at 3:50pm

Nicely done. I didn’t get the [sic] after “gospel” though. Explanation?

Jon Murphy
May 18 2024 at 6:30pm

Gospel is a proper noun. It should be capitalized.

David Henderson
May 18 2024 at 7:48pm

Thanks. I learn something new every day.

Jon Murphy
May 18 2024 at 7:54pm

Actually I had a thought:

Gospel as two uses. The first, in reference to the Christian Gospel. The second, a generic term for absolute truth and doctrine. I read the sentence on question as Mencken referring the Christian Gospel, a proper noun. But he could have just been using it in a generic manner, which would mean no capitalization.

Pierre Lemieux
May 18 2024 at 11:05pm

Good post, Jon. I am always surprised by the sort of inanities that protectionists try to have the good people believe. This is also true of most other state interventions, but protectionists seem to have a comparative advantage there. For garlic, though, they might have a national security argument: if national garlic disappears and the Chinese government degrades or weakens the garlic exported to Americans, who will protect us from being attacked by vampires behind the combat lines?

One of the three liberal principles of government intervention proposed by Anthony de Jasay is, “In case of doubt, abstain.”

David Seltzer
May 19 2024 at 4:58pm

Pierre: Behind combat lines I would arm myself with a stake or a cross. If we are to fight them, arm all the combatants with these weapons. One can never be to careful in the Bloodhunt!

 

Max Molden
May 19 2024 at 6:45am

Simply showing that some intervention could accomplish some desired outcome does not mean the action is justified or desirable.

People have the tendency to isolate their favoured government intervention from everything else. Assuming that (i) it will be done as they envision it and (ii) overlooking short-term and long-term (negative) effects, they conclude it is desirable. To this comes that with the coercive power of the state, lots of things can be achieved.

I tend to think that the belief that the political process will always work to one’s liking is one of the worst fallacies of today. Even more so since the world is clearly not so, and everyone (on some level) knows this. But people continue to hold that belief. “If only we were in power.” …

Jon Murphy
May 19 2024 at 10:39am

I tend to think that the belief that the political process will always work to one’s liking is one of the worst fallacies of today. Even more so since the world is clearly not so, and everyone (on some level) knows this. But people continue to hold that belief. “If only we were in power.” …

Agreed.  And, it seems to me, this tendency is especially bad among economists.

Thomas L Hutcheson
May 19 2024 at 5:50pm

One dead give-away for a phony argument is when the proposed policy is  not the lowest cost means to the end.  John’s example of tainted garlic is spot on.

Spotter oner are tariffs to promote national defense manufacturing domestically when production subsidies are what is called for or subsidizing substitutes of CO2 emitting technologies instead of taxing the net emissions.

Jon Murphy
May 19 2024 at 10:30pm

Dude, come on. Not everything is about carbon emissions.

Art Carden
May 20 2024 at 4:19pm

The problem, of course, is that no one who is willing to accept that kind of power should under any circumstances be trusted with it.

Art Carden
May 20 2024 at 4:20pm

Hence the importance of checks and balances. The optimist in me wants to think that by giving ground on silly things like garlic regulation, we avoid letting them devote their time and attention to creating even worse problems.

Jon Murphy
May 21 2024 at 7:42am

The realist in me thinks that would only encourage them further

Comments are closed.

RECENT POST

We should be careful about words, expressions, and catchphrases, especially those political hyperboles that buttress the statist zeitgeist of our time. You are a product of greedy corporations. The author of the May 16 Economist newsletter “The World in Brief” says it in passing: Walmart’s ad operation is much s...

Read More

Brickbat: Robot's Day of Rest by Charles Oliver, Reason, May 10, 2024. Excerpt: A German court has ruled that the robots at the Tegut supermarket chain must be given Sundays off, just like human workers. Under German law, retail stores must close on Sundays and Christian holidays in order to give employees a d...

Read More

In his book Minority Report, H.L. Mencken writes: “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.  Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve.  This is true even of the pious brethren who carry the gospel [sic] to foreign parts.”   With a little rew...

Read More