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Making Economic Sense
by Murray Rothbard
(Contents by Publication Date)

Chapter 98
Welcoming the Vietnamese

From its inception America was largely the land of the free, but there were a few exceptions. One was the blatant subsidies to the politically powerful maritime industry. Trying to protect what has long been a chronically inefficient industry from international competition, one of the initial actions of the first American Congress in 1789 was to pass the Jones Act, which protected both maritime owners and their top employees. The Jones Act provided that vessels of five or more tons in American waters had to be owned by U.S. citizens, and that only citizens could serve as masters or pilots of such vessels.

Times have changed, and whatever national security considerations that might have required a fleet of private boats ready to assist the U. S. Navy, have long since disappeared. The Jones Act had long ago become a dead letter, but let a law remain on the books, and it can always be trotted out to be used as a club for protectionism. And that is what has happened with the Jones Act.

Unfortunately, the latest victims of the Jones Act are Vietnamese immigrants who were welcomed as refugees from Communism, and who have proved to be thrifty, hard-working, and productive residents of the United States, working toward their citizenship. Unfortunately, too productive as fishermen for some of their inefficient Anglo competitors. In the early 1980s, Texas shrimpers attempted, by use of violence, to put Vietnamese-American competitors out of business.

The latest outrage against Vietnamese-American fishermen has occurred in California, mainly in San Francisco, where Vietnamese-Americans, legal residents of the U.S., have pooled their resources to purchase boats, and have been engaged in successful fishing of kingfish and hagfish for the past decade. In recent months, in response to complaints by Anglo competitors, the Coast Guard has been cracking down on the Vietnamese, citing the long-for-gotten and long unenforced provisions of the Jones Act. 

While the Vietnamese-Americans have been willing to pay the $500 fine per citation to keep earning their livelihood, the Coast Guard now threatens to confiscate their boat-registration documents and thereby put them out of business. The fact that these are peaceful, legal, permanent residents makes all the more ridiculous the U.S. government's contention that they "present a clear and present threat to the national security."

Dennis W. Hayashi of the Asian Law Caucus, who is an attorney for the Vietnamese fishermen, notes that all of them "are working toward citizenship. They were welcomed as political refugees. It is noxious to me that because they have not yet sworn allegiance to America there is an implication that they are untrustworthy."

In the best tradition of Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake," the government replies that the Vietnamese are free to work on boats under five tons which would operate closer to shore. The problem is that the Vietnamese concentrate on fish that cater to Asian restaurants and fish shops, and that such kingfish and hagfish have to be caught in gill nets. So why not use gill nets in small boats closer to shore? Because here, in a classic governmental Catch-22 situation, our old friends the environmentalists have already been at work.

Seven years ago the environmentalists persuaded California to outlaw the use of gill netting in less than 60 feet of water. Why? Because these nets were, willy-nilly, ensnaring migratory birds and marine mammals in their meshes. So, once again, the environmentalists, speaking for the interests of all conceivable species as against man, have won out against their proclaimed enemies, human beings.

And so, seeking freedom and freedom of enterprise as victims of collectivism, the Vietnamese have been trapped by the U.S. government as pawns of inefficient competitors on the one hand and anti-human environmentalists on the other. The Vietnamese-Americans are seeking justice in American courts, however, and perhaps they will obtain it. 

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