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Protectionists are Masters of Legerdemain

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross writes that “because American auto tariffs are so much lower than those of other countries, the only way U.S. trade negotiators can get trading partners to reduce their tariffs is by giving concessions against other U.S. industries.  This, then, requires the government to pick winners and losers in our own economy” (Letters, May 26).  This passage is a parade of verbal chicanery.

First, U.S. tariff reductions are not “concessions against other U.S. industries.”  U.S. tariff reductions are a restoration of freedom, and of opportunities to prosper, to American consumers – and, by the way, also to the many U.S. industries that are necessarily harmed by tariffs.

Second, Uncle Sam’s picking of winners and losers occurs not when it reduces some tariffs but, instead, when it imposes tariffs in the first place.  Each tariff creates government-picked visible winners whose booty comes at the larger expense of many unseen losers.  Therefore, reducing or eliminating any tariff, contrary to Mr. Ross’s claim, gets government further out of the cronyist business of picking winners and losers.  Put differently, criticizing reductions in a subset of tariffs as ‘picking winners and losers’ is akin to criticizing a thief’s decision to reduce the number of people he robs as ‘picking winners and losers.’

Either way, however, if Mr. Ross really is so deeply disturbed by government picking winners and losers, an easy and unambiguous solution is available: eliminate all tariffs and other import restraints unconditionally.  Problem solved.  Indeed, until and unless government follows this free-trade policy it will necessarily be picking winners and losers.

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