Protect This: Why You Can't Stop the Outside World

Tariffs make everyone poorer.

On a recent episode of 60 Minutes, Steve Croft interviewed an Ohio factory executive about (what else?) Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

The exec was concerned about the "trade deficit" with China, as he felt it was responsible for the depressed state of the economy in Ohio, the widespread job loss and wage reduction throughout the state, and the generally poor quality of life.  According to him, China could hire workers for one-fortieth of the cost of his employees, so the Chinese were easily able to offer the same products his plant made, but for far less money - which meant that many industries like his throughout Ohio were being forced to shut down.

His solution: "[W]e need some tariffs or something."

Let me first stipulate: I am not indicting the American working man.  Like most economic fallacies, the ideas of protectionism seem perfectly commonsensical at first blush.  A series of duties, quotas and taxes on importing would stop foreign products from out-competing domestic ones, ensuring a ripe market for our own manufacturing and (more importantly) protecting jobs for those working in our manufacturing sector.

And anyway, such stuff is only fair, since those foreigners (the Chinese for example) are imposing quotas and tariffs on our products and taking all our manufacturing sector jobs through outsourcing -- so we ought to give them a taste of their own medicine, to induce them to open up their markets and quit undercutting us.

Certainly these ideas sound attractive to beleaguered factory owners and, especially, to trade unions.  Unfortunately, they are all economic fallacies.

Sucking the Blood

The idea that foreign companies will be somehow penalized by these tariffs is utterly false. Like all corporate taxes, the cost of these duties will simply be passed on to the consumer.

Consider this example: A Chinese manufacturer can produce a television for the retail price of $500, and the best American manufacturer can produce an equivalent one for no less than $600. Very sensibly he believes, a protectionist suggests that the government enact a $100 tariff on the importation of TVs from China in order to "even the playing field."

However, the Chinese manufacturer is not punished by this tariff in any way; he's not the one paying it.  The American consumer who wishes to purchase a TV pays the tax.

Think about it: prior to the tariff, the consumer had a choice among different TVs at his local electronics store.  Assuming he went to the store with $600 - and assuming that all other things were equal with regard to TV quality - he could leave with a Chinese TV and $100, or an American TV and no dollars.

After the tariff is imposed, he can only leave with a TV, Chinese or American, and zero dollars.  Note that he is $100 poorer, not the Chinese TV manufacturer who still makes the same profit over his cost regardless.  All that's happened here is that the tariff has transferred $100 to the government from the wallet of the citizen, in the name of "leveling the playing field."

And what if we raise the tariff so high that the American TV is actually cheaper, and outsells the Chinese manufacturer to the point of forcing him to leave the market?  Well, then we're creating a monopoly, or at least oligopoly, and we know how well those have worked in the past. And, like all monopolies, as soon as the government protection disappears, so will the monopoly.  The moment we drop the tariff, the Chinese manufacturer will be back, because he knows that there's money to be made in the American market.

Self-Destruct Sequence

How about the American TV manufacturer in the previous example?  Has he really benefited?  Well, arguably yes - he's the classic example of a special interest gaining a benefit for himself at the expense of everyone else.  But we (and he) should understand that even the manufacturer will be hurt to some degree by the tariff he lobbied so hard for.

First, he's still being out-competed by the Chinese manufacturer who still has lower operating costs - the American has, at best, merely erected an impediment to the outside world which won't help him sell outside America.  Like the moats and castles of old, the high, stone walls of his tariff will eventually become his (and our) prison - serving to isolate American markets while the unfettered world outside goes right along.

Also, the American manufacturer hurts himself in other more immediate ways. Consumers of his overpriced TVs now cannot afford to purchase other products that he may be making - say, DVD players or DVRs - because they've had to pay that money to the government so that they might be allowed to purchase a TV.  The tariff has also hurt the manufacturer's retailer partners, because they too will not be able to sell further products to consumers who have spent their money to the government to pay the manufacturer's tariff.

Finally, on top of all this, the TV manufacturer has ignored the fact that he himself is a consumer of all products he does not manufacture in the marketplace.  If the government "protects" all industries for which there is foreign competition (i.e., virtually every industry that exists), each producer will be hurt (in his role as consumer) by the artificially increased cost of others' products.

For example, in a tariff society, the wine maker must pay more for his presses, because the American machine-tool manufacturer has caused the government to artificially raise the cost of cheaper Mexican wine presses at the market. Meanwhile, the grocer must pay more for his wines, because the wine-maker has transferred his increased manufacturing costs to the grocer, his customer.  In turn, the machine-tool manufacturer has to pay more when he buys a bottle of wine for his supper at the market, because the grocer will transfer his costs to his shoppers.

In the end, everybody is poorer proportionate to the tariff - and no one is, therefore, ever really helped. When the government raises the price of even one good in the market artificially, it can't help but systemically affect the entire market for the worse.

Bastiat is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Bastiat or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
You forget the government is "helped" in the tariff schemes as it benefits for a short while at least (until people stop buying stuff because they can no longer afford to buy anything at all).
March 17, 2008 9:12 PM
Almost every strike ordered by unions in the beginning against management was for a wage increase. Problem was the employees did not increase production or produce a better "widget" by doing the same task.

Facts are the price of all "widgets" are increased by the manufacturer, the employee pays more taxes in the higher tax bracket, their money buys less and Uncle Sam receives more money to waste on entitlements from everyone above pays, the CONSUMERS. And the beast goes on!

Minimum wage is for high school and college kids employed in menial jobs to earn their own money for expenses incurred by them. An increase in pay makes the kids feel richer, but their status is not advanced. Minimum wage is NOT for anyone trying to raise a family. This is one of the main problems that drive young families to divorce and to depend on Medicaid for medicine and welfare to feed, clothe and shelter their family.

I believe the free market round the world will eventually prevail and prices for products and services will rise and fall according to the free market. Minimum wages should be increased with the Cost Of Living Allowance increase every year. No strike needed.

In order for capitalism to succeed anywhere in the world is every able bodied citizen must be educated to their highest achievable level in their discipline, skill, craft or trade. The Apprentice to Journeyman to Master programs should be initiated and administered by every employer and paid according to the scale nationwide. No strike needed.
"Whatever evolves was first, created" - Jason Leverette, Patriot
March 18, 2008 6:33 AM
In 1886 Samuel Gompers founded the AFL, the American Federation of Labor. "To protect the skilled labor of America from being reduced to beggary and to sustain the standard of American workmanship and skill, the trades unions of America have been established."

In November 1935, John L. Lewis announced the creation of the CIO the Committee for Industrial Organization. In 1938 the CIO held its first constitutional convention and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Commerce was disrupted by the Printers Strike of 1794 in NY; Cabinet Makers Strike in PA in 1796; Carpenters Strike in PA in 1797; Cordwainers Strike in NY in 1799; Pullman Strike in 1894; Coal Miners Strike in PA 1902. Almost all of the strikes were for good cause such as better wages, working hours, safety and ending child labor.

Unions were of necessity during the beginning of our country, but there has been a steady decline in both union membership and influence, because Employers are keeping their businesses union-free. Loyalty to organized labor decreased sharply, because more women and teenagers are accepting lower wages thereby defeating the purpose of organized labor.

Unions raised their wages substantially above the wages paid to nonunion workers. Union-made products became so expensive that sales were lost to less expensive foreign competitors and nonunion producers. Companies had to cut back on production, which caused some workers and members to lose their jobs. When factories close Union Leaders do not lose their job.

The recent shift in this country towards technology and service has made our economy less reliant in the types of industrial jobs that tended to be union strongholds. Today's worker tends to be more highly educated and in the professional, white collar class.
"Whatever evolves was first, created" - Jason Leverette, Patriot
March 18, 2008 6:42 AM
My view of protectionism is that it's basically a knee jerk reaction by those that do not want to compete in the marketplace. Don't think you can win? Don't want to even TRY to win? Then fix the rules so that you don't have to. The House Democracts are about this. They don't understand economics, like every other Democrat, and so they don't understand how to rally world markets to THEIR advantage. Hence, the only perceived chance they have it to quit early and say it's not fair, ergo the right to fix rules.
March 18, 2008 8:55 AM
Why should we be concerned with foreign markets and how bad or good they are? A lack of protectionism requires Americans to shed their nationality over time and be concerned with cultures they otherwise would not be.
March 19, 2008 2:01 PM

Hello from the future!

Ten years after this was written, and all y'all have Trump. Suddenly, tariffs are a wonderful thing!

August 30, 2018 8:52 AM

Are they? We here at Scragged haven't said so.

I have no idea what Trump truly believes. Thus far, though, he's used the threat of tariffs effectively in the same negotiating style he's used his whole life: threaten extremes to get his opposite numbers to do what he wants them to do.

Will this work all the time? I have no idea. Yes, placing significant, long-term tariffs on products will do long-term damage. So far he hasn't done that, and there's no way of knowing if he actually will. Threats of tariffs, or even real short-term ones to force other countries to negotiate, could bring about more benefits than they do harm.

Yes, it's a risky strategy - but Trump was elected because the American people are sick of the same-old same-old. Whether or not this was a good idea, well, we'll all learn together.

August 31, 2018 7:27 AM
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