Protection implies prevention. To protect is to preserve or defend.
What is it that protection by tariff prevents? It is trade. To speak more exactly, it is that part of trade which consists in bringing in from other countries commodities that might be produced at home.
But trade, from which “protection” essays to preserve and defend us, is not, like flood, earthquake, or tornado, something that comes without human agency. Trade implies human action. There can be no need of preserving from or defending against trade, unless there are men who want to trade and try to trade. Who, then, are the men against whose efforts to trade “protection” preserves and defends us?
If I had been asked this question before I had come to think over the matter for myself, I should have said that the men against whom “protection” defends us are foreign producers who wish to sell their goods in our home markets. This is the assumption that runs through all protectionist arguments—the assumption that foreigners are constantly trying to force their products upon us, and that a protective tariff is a means for defending ourselves against what they want to do.
Yet a moment’s thought will show that no effort of foreigners to sell us their products could of itself make a tariff necessary. For the desire of one party, however strong it may be, cannot of itself bring about trade. To every trade there must be two parties who mutually desire to trade, and whose actions are reciprocal. No one can buy unless he can find some one willing to sell; and no one can sell unless there is some other one willing to buy. If Americans did not want to buy foreign goods, foreign goods could not be sold here even if there were no tariff. The efficient cause of the trade which our tariff aims to prevent is the desire of Americans to buy foreign goods, not the desire of foreign producers to sell them. Thus protection really prevents what the “protected” themselves want to do. It is not from foreigners that protection preserves and defends us; it is from ourselves.
Trade is not invasion. It does not involve aggression on one side and resistance on the other, but mutual consent and gratification.
Protectionists don’t really petition to protect their fellow citizens from the predations of foreigners. Instead, protectionists petition to expose the bulk of their fellow citizens to the predations of a handful of other of their fellow citizens – predations made possible by the tariffs and other trade barriers that obliterate the protection that the bulk of their fellow citizens would otherwise enjoy in the form of having the option to purchase without impediment goods and services from foreign suppliers.