Here’s a letter to an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump’s trade policies:
Mr. Stu Orgeron
Thanks for your e-mail. Explaining why you share Donald Trump’s hostility to free trade, you write that you “worry because the economy is weighed down with too much regulation and taxes.” These government intrusions, you conclude, “make it hopeless for businessmen and workers to respond rapidly enough to disruptions which imports cause.”
I agree that regulations and taxes are too many and too high. But I disagree that this fact justifies protectionism.
First, it’s odd (to say the least) to point to excessively high taxes and government regulations as reasons to raise taxes further and to impose more government regulations. After all, tariffs are taxes and import restrictions are government regulations.
Second, even if we grant that today’s regulations and taxes overwhelm firms’ and workers’ abilities to adequately adjust to changes in trade patterns, there is absolutely no reason to single out international trade as uniquely exacerbating this problem. Any changes in consumer spending would spark the same problem that you believe is sparked uniquely by international trade. If Americans choose to buy more used cars and fewer new cars, U.S. autoworkers confront the same difficulties as they would confront if Americans instead bought more foreign-assembled cars and fewer American-assembled cars. Likewise, if an improvement in materials technology extends the average life of blue jeans, socks, and underwear, some workers in U.S. textile mills will lose jobs and confront adjustment difficulties no less than if a new trade deal enables American consumers to buy more jeans, socks, and underwear made from foreign-made textiles.
Unless you’re willing to argue that the burden of taxes and regulations today is so heavy that government must prevent all changes in consumer spending and not just those changes that involve international trade, your argument for restrictions on international trade is unpersuasive.
Put differently, if U.S. taxes and regulations today really do, as you argue, make international trade a threat to Americans’ prosperity, then the problems that we Americans confront are so fundamental – are so colossal in their extent and run so deeply – that to pour as much energy and nastiness as Trump does into denouncing Mexicans and the Chinese for allegedly exacerbating our own self-inflicted economic sclerosis is obscene.
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercator Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030