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Should DIY Pursuits Be Punitively Tariffed?

Here’s another letter to my new and vigorous correspondent, Nolan McKinney:

Mr. McKinney:

You justify tariffs and other trade restrictions by insisting that “our government is duty-bound to keep our assets and workers from becoming superfluous.”

I disagree for many reasons.  Here are two.

First: machines, inventories, workers, and other productive assets in the U.S. are not “ours”; they don’t belong to us collectively.  Each of these countless assets belongs to the specific individual or firm who created or bought it, or, in the case of labor, who hires it out to a willing employer.  And each of these assets operates both complementary to some other assets (as, for example, your family physician using syringes and other medical equipment) and – especially important here – in competition with yet other assets (as, for example, your family physician competing for patients with other physicians in town).

Second: each individual asset owner is entitled to whatever gains she reaps by using her assets in ways that satisfy consumer demands, but is not entitled to artificially raise the value of those assets by forcibly preventing consumers from employing options other than buying her outputs.

Recently I was in a Sherwin-Williams store to buy paint.  The customer ahead of me was a professional painter complaining about a slowdown in his work.  It occurred to me that, by doing the painting as a do-it-yourself household project, I denied this painter an opportunity to earn income from my household.  Do you believe that the state, to help keep some of this painter’s time and talent from becoming “superfluous,” should prevent me from doing my own painting?  Do you believe that this painter is entitled to have government impose punitive taxes on me and others whenever we do-it-yourselfers paint rooms in our own homes rather than hire professional painters to perform these jobs?

If you understand that government shouldn’t interfere with individuals’ decisions to save money by doing household projects themselves (rather than hire professionals), why do you suppose that government should interfere with individuals’ decisions to save money by buying foreign-assembled goods rather than domestically assembled goods?  Why are the money-saving efforts in the first case legitimate while those in the second case illegitimate?  In both cases, these economic decisions by individuals deny business to particular American workers and businesses and, in some instances, threaten to make their specific jobs and their specific assets superfluous.

So I ask again: Do you believe that government should punitively tax me, you, and other Americans whenever we perform do-it-yourself household painting jobs?

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030