BY HENRY HAZLITT
Economics In One Lesson, Chapter 12
Exceeded only by the pathological dread of imports that affects all nations is a pathological yearning for exports. Logically, it is true, nothing could be more inconsistent. In the long run imports and exports must equal each other (considering both in the broadest sense, which includes such “invisible” items as tourist expenditures and ocean freight charges). It is exports that pay for imports, and vice versa. The greater exports we have, the greater imports we must have, if we ever expect to get paid. The smaller imports we have, the smaller exports we can have. Without imports we can have no exports, for foreigners will have no funds with which to buy our goods. When we decide to cut down our imports, we are in effect deciding also to cut down our exports. When we decide to increase our exports, we are in effect deciding also to increase our imports.
The reason for this is elementary. An American exporter sells his goods to a British importer and is paid in British pounds sterling. But he cannot use British pounds to pay the wages of his workers, to buy his wife’s clothes or to buy theater tickets. For all these purposes he needs American dollars. Therefore his British pounds are of no use to him unless he either uses them himself to buy British goods or sells them to some American importer who wishes to use them to buy British goods. Whichever he does, the transaction cannot be completed until the American exports have been paid for by an equal amount of imports.
The same situation would exist if the transaction had been conducted in terms of American dollars instead of British pounds. The British importer could not pay the American exporter in dollars unless some previous British exporter had built up a credit in dollars here as a result of some previous sale to us. Foreign exchange, in short, is a clearing transaction in which, in America, the dollar debts of foreigners are cancelled against their dollar credits. In England, the pound sterling debts of foreigners are cancelled against their sterling credits.
There is no reason to go into the technical details of all this, which can be found in any good textbook on foreign exchange. But it should be pointed out that there is nothing inherently mysterious about it (in spite of the mystery in which it is so often wrapped), and that it does not differ essentially from what happens in domestic trade. Each of us must also sell something, even if for most of us it is our own services rather than goods, in order to get the purchasing power to buy. Domestic trade is also conducted in the main by crossing off checks and other claims against each other through clearing houses.
It is true that under an international gold standard discrepancies in balances of imports and exports are sometimes settled by shipments of gold. But they could just as well be settled by shipments of cotton, steel, whisky, perfume, or any other commodity. The chief difference is that the demand for gold is almost indefinitely expansible (partly because it is thought of and accepted as a residual international “money” rather than as just another commodity), and that nations do not put artificial obstacles in the way of receiving gold as they do in the way of receiving almost everything else. (On the other hand, of late years they have taken to putting more obstacles in the way of exporting gold than in the way of exporting anything else: but that is another story.)
Now the same people who can be clearheaded and sensible when the subject is one of domestic trade can be incredibly emotional and muddleheaded when it becomes one of foreign trade. In the latter field they can seriously advocate or acquiesce in principles which they would think it insane to apply in domestic business. A typical example is the belief that the government should make huge loans to foreign countries for the sake of increasing our exports, regardless of whether or not these loans are likely to be repaid.
American citizens, of course, should be allowed to lend their own funds abroad at their own risk. The government should put no arbitrary barriers in the way of private lending to countries with which we are at peace. We should give generously, for humane reasons alone, to peoples who are in great distress or in danger of starving. But we ought always to know clearly what we are doing. It is not wise to bestow charity on foreign peoples under the impression that one is making a hardheaded business transaction purely for one’s own selfish purposes. That could only lead to misunderstandings and bad relations later.
Yet among the arguments put forward in favor of huge foreign lending one fallacy is always sure to occupy a prominent place. It runs like this. Even if half (or all) the loans we make to foreign countries turn sour and are not repaid, this nation will still be better off for having made them, because they will give an enormous impetus to our exports.
It should be immediately obvious that if the loans we make to foreign countries to enable them to buy our goods are not repaid, then we are giving the goods away. A nation cannot grow rich by giving goods away. It can only make itself poorer.
No one doubts this proposition when it is applied privately. If an automobile company lends a man $1,000 to buy a car priced at that amount, and the loan is not repaid, the automobile company is not better off because it has “sold” the car. It has simply lost the amount that it cost to make the car. If the car cost $900 to make, and only half the loan is repaid, then the company has lost $900 minus $500, or a net amount of $400. It has not made up in trade what it lost in bad loans.
If this proposition is so simple when applied to a private company, why do apparently intelligent people get confused about it when applied to a nation? The reason is that the transaction must then be traced mentally through a few more stages. One group may indeed make gains—while the rest of us take the losses.
It is true, for example, that persons engaged exclusively or chiefly in export business might gain on net balance as a result of bad loans made abroad. The national loss on the transaction would be certain, but it might be distributed in ways difficult to follow. The private lenders would take their losses directly. The losses from government lending would ultimately be paid out of increased taxes imposed on everybody. But there would also be many indirect losses brought about by the effect on the economy of these direct losses.
In the long run business and employment in America would be hurt, not helped, by foreign loans that were not repaid. For every extra dollar that foreign buyers had with which to buy American goods, domestic buyers would ultimately have one dollar less. Businesses that depend on domestic trade would therefore be hurt in the long run as much as export businesses would be helped. Even many concerns that did an export business would be hurt on net balance. American automobile companies, for example, sold about 10 per cent of their output in the foreign market before the war. It would not profit them to double their sales abroad as a result of bad foreign loans if they thereby lost, say, 20 per cent of their American sales as the result of added taxes taken from American buyers to make up for the unpaid foreign loans.
None of this means, I repeat, that it is unwise to make foreign loans, but simply that we cannot get rich by making bad ones.
For the same reasons that it is stupid to give a false stimulation to export trade by making bad loans or outright gifts to foreign countries, it is stupid to give a false stimulation to export trade through export subsidies. Rather than repeat most of the previous argument, I leave it to the reader to trace the effects of export subsidies as I have traced the effects of bad loans. An export subsidy is a clear case of giving the foreigner something for nothing, by selling him goods for less than it costs us to make them. It is another case of trying to get rich by giving things away.
Bad loans and export subsidies are additional examples of the error of looking only at the immediate effect of a policy on special groups, and of not having the patience or intelligence to trace the long-run effects of the policy on everyone.
Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.