While following the D.C. policy debates this week, I thought of a story I call the Parable of the Islanders. The story begins with a group of friends sitting around playing a game of “What If?”, a game where people consider the implications of various hypothetical scenarios. One person in the group speaks up and offers this scenario: What if they were the only inhabitants of a giant island with no access to any man-made products? In such a scenario, the only man-made products one could use would be the products the group made themselves.

The group quickly would realize that such a world would be different than what we see today. In their hypothetical world the only food they could eat would be that which they grow, hunt, and gather, as there would not be any grocery stores or processed foods. Furthermore, the only foods they could consume are those foods from their region. There would be no possibility of bringing in fruit and vegetables from other regions of the globe.

Additionally, the islanders would not be able to wear the same clothes, as our modern clothing is often made by some machine. Instead, the islanders would have to rely upon leaves and animal skins alone. Also, the islanders would live in what we would consider to be sub-standard housing since there would not be any modern tools available for building a modern house. There would be no electronics, or even electricity unless the islanders could build their own power plant.

Soon though, one of the friends pipes in, “Even though such a life would certainly be hard without the comforts of modern life, it would still be better than today. After all, we would all have jobs to do in order to stay alive … none of us would ever have to worry about being unemployed.”

While it is true that the group always would have plenty to do, most people recognize that such an island life is not their idea of paradise. After all, we have grown accustomed to the creature comforts of life. Those comforts — the ready access to a variety of food, clothing, housing and machinery — improve our quality of life.

While we may delude ourselves in thinking that things do not make us happy, it is clear that for most of us, these things in life certainly make us happier than we would be without them. After all, few people choose to live a life without any of these things.

Sadly, it is easy for us to overlook just how much we depend upon others to give us the things we use in our lives. The moral of the parable is that if we had to live only off our own labor, then we would be much poorer. Likewise, if the people of the United States had to live only off of the things made in the United States, then we would be poorer too, because we would lose access to all of the products we use that are made elsewhere.

This is why economists generally support free trade between nations. This trade allows us to enjoy the products made from around the world, including many products we would not have otherwise. But there are those who argue against free trade because they say they want to protect America’s prosperity. Like the friend in the parable though, these people do not recognize that limiting one’s trading partners only can make us worse off.

This past week President Bush transmitted to Congress the proposed Columbia Free Trade Agreement, which would make it easier for us to buy products made in Columbia and for Columbians to buy products made here. Unfortunately, many Democrats oppose this agreement, arguing that this agreement would make us poorer. Like the friend in the parable though, these Democrats have it wrong … it is the Democrats’ opposition to free trade that will make us poorer.



MICKEY HEPNER is an associate professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma.

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