A sure sign that someone is in the midst of making an intellectually and ethically flawed argument against trade is that someone’s use of the term “level playing field.” With exceptions too rare to mention, this hackneyed phrase is always used to justify higher taxes on domestic consumers who buy imports. Unwilling to honestly reveal the purpose behind a tariff or other trade restriction, the protectionist attempts to convey the impression that it would be unfair not to raise taxes on domestic purchasers of imports. After all, if “they” aren’t playing “fairly,” then “we” must protect “our” producers from “their unfairness.”
I’ll here rehearse neither the argument against the fallacy that trade is akin to a sporting event, nor the argument against the fallacy of judging the consequences of trade according to how well or poorly existing, highly visible domestic producers fare. (Interested readers can see, for example, here and here and here and here.)
Instead, in this present post I point out that, from the perspective of each individual worker or firm, the economy – even just the domestic economy – is forever full of all sorts of features that, when the topic is international trade, cause protectionists to scream that the “playing field” is tilted.