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Questions for Protectionists

Friday, October 21, 2016 14:15
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(Don Boudreaux)

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Here are some questions for American protectionists.

– Claiming to be bothered by government-created market distortions, you insist that Uncle Sam should use tariffs to penalize Americans who purchase imports the production and sale of which are subsidized by foreign governments – that is, imports made by foreign governments to be artificially less costly in America.  Because such subsidies artificially transfer resources to the production or distribution of some foreign-made goods, they necessarily artificially transfer resources away from the production or distribution of other foreign-made goods.  Therefore, foreign governments cannot artificially lower the cost to Americans of buying some foreign-made goods without simultaneously artificially raising the cost to Americans of buying other foreign-made goods.  Given this unavoidable reality, do you then also believe that Uncle Sam should use subsidies to encourage Americans to import more of those foreign-made goods the production and sale of which are necessarily made artificially more costly in America by the very same subsidies that make other foreign-made goods artificially less costly in America?  If so, why do we never hear you calling for Uncle Sam to subsidize American consumers’ importation of any foreign-made goods?

– Most of you attempt to pose as practical realists by saying something along the lines of “I don’t oppose all trade; I oppose only the dogmatic insistence by free traders that there be no trade restrictions whatsoever.  I want government to allow trade that works for Americans’ best interest and to tamp down trade that doesn’t.”  Why, then, do you restrict your pragmatic realism only to foreign trade?  Why not empower government officials to monitor all domestic trades as well – and to allow those domestic trades that these (presumably) wise officials judge to be in America’s best long-term interest and to prevent those trades that are judged to be otherwise?  Given your evident skepticism of free markets to discover the best patterns of production and trade – and your accompanying confidence that government officials are better situated and motivate to discover and ensure the achievement of these best patterns – why limit the application of these officials’ genius and goodness only to the arena of international trade?  Why not have a Pres. Trump or Pres. Clinton appoint bureaucrats whose job it is to determine if, say, New Yorkers’ purchase of maple syrup from Vermont is or isn’t in America’s best long-term interest – and if it isn’t , to tax or to prevent such purchases?  Why not bestow upon armies of bureaucrats the authority to prevent entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley from selling to consumers in Sacramento, Saginaw, and Sarasota new apps that these bureaucrats judge to be too disruptive of other American producers’ markets?

– Many of you claim to be opposed to raising taxes.  Yet what are tariffs but taxes?  How do you square your support for cutting taxes with your fervor for raising tariffs?

– Many others of you insist that corporations have too much power.  How do you reconcile this insistence with your demand for policies that protect corporations from foreign competition – that is, with your demand for policies that penalize ordinary consumers who choose to patronize foreign rivals of the domestic corporations that you insist are too powerful?

– Some of you rightly applaud your neighbors who save and invest, recognizing that those actions help make the U.S. economy more productive over the long run.  Yet you also believe that a U.S. trade deficit necessarily makes the U.S. economy weaker over the long run?  Given that every cent of a U.S. trade deficit is a cent that is invested by foreigners in the U.S. economy or in dollar-denominated assets (that is, the same sorts of things that your neighbor invests in when he or she invests in ways that strengthen the U.S. economy), how do you justify applauding your saving and investing neighbor while simultaneously condemning saving and investing foreigners?

– Nearly all of you regard American exports as a splendid blessing for Americans and American imports as the lamentable price that we Americans must pay in order to enjoy that splendid blessing.  Do you, then, also regard the time and effort that you give to your employer to be the reason you work, and the income you receive to be the price that you must pay in order to enjoy the privilege of exporting your work effort to your employers?  If not, can you describe the difference that make American exports and imports different from your and your family’s exports and imports?

– Given your belief that we are enriched if government protects ‘our’ producers and workers and from having to compete with foreign producers and workers, do you regret the fact that the United States is one large free-trade zone?  That is, given your economic theory, surely you must believe that we’d be even richer if the government in Tallahassee were able to protect Florida-based firms and workers from the disruptive competition of non-Floridians – and if the governments in Albany, Richmond, Baton Rouge, Austin, Atlanta, Lansing, Topeka, etc., each did the same.  Do you in fact believe that Americans would be even richer if the miracle of tariffs were allowed to be used by state governments rather than only by Uncle Sam?  If not, why not?

– Finally, are you not ashamed of yourselves not only for sitting in arrogant judgment of how your fellow Americans choose to spend the incomes that they’ve earned, but also of supporting the use of force by Uncle Sam to prevent your fellow citizens from spending their incomes as they choose?  By advocating tariffs, you effectively are willing to have the government kill people who insist with sufficient determination on buying, without paying a special tax, the likes of foreign-grown tomatoes or foreign-made steel?  Do you think that such an ‘offense’ warrants threats of death?

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