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Misinterpretation Of Joan Robinson’s Quote On Dropping Rocks

Summary:
In her famous 1937 article, Beggar-My-Neighbour Remedies For Unemployment, Joan Robinson made this famous remark about dropping rocks into our harbours, i.e., imposing tariffs as retaliation:The popular view that free trade is all very well so long as all nations are free-traders, but that when other nations erect tariffs we must erect tariffs too, is countered by the argument that it would be just as sensible to drop rocks into our harbours because other nations have rocky coasts.6 This argument, once more, is unexceptionable on its own ground. The tariffs of foreign nations (except in so far as they can be modified by bargaining) are simply a fact of nature from the point of view of the home authorities, and the maximum of specialization that is possible in face of them still yields the

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In her famous 1937 articleBeggar-My-Neighbour Remedies For Unemployment, Joan Robinson made this famous remark about dropping rocks into our harbours, i.e., imposing tariffs as retaliation:

The popular view that free trade is all very well so long as all nations are free-traders, but that when other nations erect tariffs we must erect tariffs too, is countered by the argument that it would be just as sensible to drop rocks into our harbours because other nations have rocky coasts.6 This argument, once more, is unexceptionable on its own ground. The tariffs of foreign nations (except in so far as they can be modified by bargaining) are simply a fact of nature from the point of view of the home authorities, and the maximum of specialization that is possible in face of them still yields the maximum of efficiency. But when the game of beggar-my-neighbour has been played for one or two rounds, and foreign nations have stimulated their exports and cut down their imports by every device in their power, the burden of unemployment upon any country which refuses to join in the game will become intolerable and the demand for some form of retaliation irresistible. The popular view that tariffs must be answered by tariffs has therefore much practical force, though the question still remains open from which suit in any given circumstances it is wisest to play a card.

6 Beveridge, op. cit., p. 110. [Tariffs: the Case Examined]

[bolding and italics mine]

Misinterpretation Of Joan Robinson’s Quote On Dropping Rocks

Joan Robinson, left. Picture credit: Nationaal Archief

This quote however gets misinterpreted often as a recent Financial Times article did:

… All these complications are real, but they do not change the fundamental nature of the argument about trade, which was best summarised by the British economist Joan Robinson. In 1937 she pointed out that, except as a narrow negotiating ploy, it made little sense to meet tariffs with tariffs: “It would be just as sensible to drop rocks into our harbours because other nations have rocky coasts.”

This quote makes it look like Joan Robinson was a free trader, whereas Robinson was opposed to it from the very beginning to the end and her stand free trade was far ahead and louder than John Maynard Keynes.

But what Robinson is saying is that according to the arguments of those for free trade, retaliation is wrong. But as Joan says, it has a practical force. Robinson is saying that if you retaliate you don’t believe in free trade.

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