When Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, it wasn’t to refute the “godless socialists” 21st-century Republican voters believe are taking over the world. It was to refute the kinds of protectionist ideas championed by conservatives like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton in Smith’s day, Abraham Lincoln eighty years later, and Trump today.
Bastiat remade Smith’s case in 1848. Henry Hazlitt did so again in 1946. Still, these economic fallacies persist because they offer the victims of other bad economic policies villains they can blame for largely self-inflicted wounds.
The Broken Window Fallacy
Every time a Trump supporter sees “Made in China” on a pair of sneakers, he throws up his hands and says, “Do you see that? They’re stealing our manufacturing jobs.” He then repeats a version of Bastiat’s broken window fallacy. It goes something like this:
China puts tariffs on our products so our exports can’t compete in its markets. But we don’t put tariffs on China’s exports, making their sneakers cheaper than we can make them here. American sneaker manufacturing jobs go to China, but no Chinese manufacturing jobs come to the United States.
What is unseen is the money American consumers no longer have when the tariffs are put in place.
Not only do millions of Americans lose their jobs, say the protectionists, but all of the money they would have spent domestically is instead spent in China. This causes other American businesses to fail, cut production, or not expand as much as they otherwise would. The unemployed American factory worker doesn’t eat out at the local restaurant. The restaurant needs fewer wait staff and cooks, who in turn don’t have money to spend on new clothing, etc.
As Bastiat would say, this is “what is seen.” But their argument ignores what is unseen.
What is unseen is the money American consumers no longer have when the tariffs are put in place. For example, the tariff may result in them paying $200 for the same pair of sneakers they previously paid $100 for. That means they no longer have $100 they previously had after buying the sneakers, which they could spend on other products. Whatever jobs they were supporting with that $100 are now lost.
To this, the protectionist might say, “But the $100 savings on a pair of sneakers doesn’t replace the entire $50,000-per-year sneaker manufacturing job that has been lost.” This is just more of the same fallacy.
First, the entire $50,000 is not lost. All other things being equal, the unemployed sneaker factory employee goes to another job. The job may pay less, but that is only because the higher salary earned making sneakers when the tariff is in place was not the true market price for that job. It was artificially inflated by government intervention.
When the ledger is balanced, Americans, in general, are far better off without the tariff.
Regardless, what is lost is only the difference between the employee’s previous salary and his new one.
Second, one must compare the number of sneaker manufacturing jobs lost to the number of consumers of sneakers. While all of apparel manufacturing never employed more than about a million people in the U.S., sneaker consumers alone number in the tens or hundreds of millions.
When the ledger is balanced, Americans, in general, are far better off without the tariff on sneakers. They now have $100 for every pair consumed to improve their own quality of life and to create millions of jobs which wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have that extra $100 to spend.
The same goes for all manufacturing jobs “lost” to China and other countries. The lower prices Americans pay for automobiles, clothing, Apple iPhones, and Bobcats allow them to patronize those American industries which operate more efficiently than their overseas competitors. That’s called “comparative advantage,” something else free market advocates since Adam Smith have been educating people about.
Tariffs Are Just Taxes
The principle applies equally to production as to consumption. The steel and aluminum tariffs levied this week purport to create jobs in the domestic steel and aluminum industries. But what about the domestic manufacturers who currently buy steel and aluminum from less-expensive foreign exporters? They now must raise their prices to cover their increased costs, making them less competitive in foreign markets and their consumers poorer by the amount of the price increases of their products after the tariff is levied.
Conservatives like to point out that American taxpayers “don’t owe other people houses.” I completely agree, but that sword cuts both ways. Neither do American taxpayers owe manufacturing workers a higher-paying job. And in the end, that’s all tariffs do: make American taxpayers subsidize artificially higher wages.
No matter what spurious arguments special interests make in favor of tariffs, they are, at the end of the day, just another tax.
President Trump says he is only levying the tariffs because other governments don’t treat American exporters fairly. “But those other countries aren’t lowering their tariffs! We need ‘fair trade!’” Virtually every mercantilist who ever lived made the same excuse, and it doesn’t make any more sense than any of the others. Even if another country continues to levy tariffs on its imports, Americans are still better off paying $100 for a given pair of sneakers than paying $200 for them, for all the same reasons.
But what if the other country enters a “free trade deal,” then subsidizes its manufacturers to give them an unfair advantage over our own? Bastiat eviscerated this fallacy 170 years ago with his “Petition of the Candlemakers.” Unless you’re in favor of a tariff on sunlight to protect manufacturers of LED light bulbs, you can’t be in favor of responding to subsidization of manufacturers in other countries with tariffs on imports entering your own.
No matter what spurious arguments special interests make in favor of tariffs, they are, at the end of the day, just another tax. No matter what foreign governments may be doing to “protect” manufacturers in their own countries, it never helps to respond by placing more taxes on ourselves.
Economics Applies to Everyone
And don’t forget, all the unseen, negative consequences of tariffs apply equally to foreigners. If they are taxing imports on automobiles, their citizens have less money to spend on other products. Their businesses that use imported materials must raise their prices and become less competitive. Any advantage they appear to gain in one sector, they lose in another, with the same overall net loss as we experience. The ability of foreign governments to protect their industries has a natural limit.
We’ve seen this movie before. The original wasn’t very good, and remakes are usually worse.
Tariffs are never beneficial to the economy and least of all when an inflationary bubble is about to pop. During the 1920s, the Federal Reserve augmented a natural economic boom with an inflationary monetary policy, turning the boom into a bubble. When the Fed finally began to tighten, the market crashed, and a recession followed. Republican President Herbert Hoover responded by signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which made an already-bad situation worse. He then began a series of interventions that differed from FDR’s “New Deal” only in scale.
FDR saw Hoover’s interventions and raised them, resulting in an almost two-decades-long depression. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it did not end because of WWII. The depression only ended when WWII ended and taxes and government spending were cut dramatically.
We’ve seen this movie before. The original wasn’t very good, and remakes are usually worse. Hopefully, Americans are finally getting wise. A FEE article on the Smoot-Hawley tariff is trending on Google. Let’s hope Bastiat and Hazlitt start trending next.