Donald Boudreaux: What if real wars were fought like trade wars?
Uncle Sam and Beijing are now waging a full-blown trade war against each other. But trade wars are very different than real wars — you know, the violent struggles in which belligerents on one side try to kill and maim belligerents on the other side, and often also to seize land, foodstuffs and other properties belonging to the other side. In fact, trade wars are rather the opposite of real wars.
Oh, as in real wars, in trade wars each government intentionally inflicts harm on innocent people. But unlike in real wars, each government waging a trade war intentionally inflicts harm on its own citizens — as when the U.S. government punitively taxes American buyers of Chinese-made goods in order to pressure Beijing to stop extracting revenue from its taxpayers to subsidize imports sold to Americans.
Trade wars are truly bizarre. The goal of each government in harming its own citizens with tariffs is to pressure the other government into stop harming its own citizens with tariffs.
So I got to wondering: What if governments fought real wars like they fight trade wars? Here’s how the transcript of communiqués between the leaders of two warring nations — Absurditopia and Stupidia — would read:
Leader of Absurditopia (A): Hey, leader of Stupidia — we Absurditopians demand that you start occupying that strip of land that sits between our two countries. If you refuse, we’ll shoot some of our own citizens.
Leader of Stupidia (S): You Absurditopians don’t scare us! We demand that the land be occupied by you. And we’re a proud and brave people. So if you do kill some of your own people, make no mistake that we will immediately commence to killing our own people. Courage is our national motto!
(A): You’re bluffing. But I’m not. I’ve just courageously ordered my troops to mow down in cold blood 10% of my fellow citizens. Take that, you wicked Stupidians!
(S): How dare you attack you like that! You leave us no choice but to escalate our attacks on us. I’m now ordering the Stupidian army to slaughter 15% of innocent Stupidians. How do you like them apples?!
(A): You are cruel and inhuman to damage us by slaughtering some of your own people. I hereby instruct half of my fellow Absurditopians to capture and imprison the other half, and for all Absurditopians to ship all of their worldly goods to Stupidia. Maybe then you Stupidians will learn not to mess with us!
(S): You monster! I’m a tougher bargainer than you! In response to your unjust and cowardly move, I just ordered half of my fellow Stupidians not only to imprison the other half, but also to torture them. And not only will we ship back to Absurditopia all of the Absurditopians’ worldly goods, along with them we’ll ship to Absurditopia also all of our worldly goods. Take that!
(A): We will not stand for any more of your unfair and greedy abuse! I hereby order all of my fellow Absurditopians to join me in committing suicide — and to do so in especially painful ways! Only then will you vile Stupidians get your proper comeuppance and we Absurditopians the justice that we deserve!
(S): You can’t beat us, you Absurditopian you! Listen here. I’m also ordering all of my fellow citizens — Stupidians all! — to commit suicide. We’ll see who emerges victorious! Glory will be ours!
Then there ensued a long, long silence.
Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.