≡ Menu

A Patently False Excuse

Here’s a letter to Cafe Hayek reader John C____:

Mr. C____:

Thanks for your e-mail.

While I do not defend theft of intellectual property, I cannot join with you and others who insist that Trump’s reason for imposing punitive taxes on Americans who buy Chinese imports is to prevent Chinese theft of American IP. My reasons include the following:

1. Because Trump repeatedly reveals his deep hostility to free trade, there’s no reason to believe that his tariffs are motivated only, or even chiefly, by a desire to prevent IP theft by the Chinese. The risk is high both that Trump and his advisors point to this theft merely as a convenient excuse for the protectionism that they desire, and that if such theft were unambiguously to end Trump would find, or conjure up, other reasons to levy tariffs. Consider in this light Trump’s incessant and idiotic griping about the U.S. trade deficit with China – griping that would not be done if the main purpose of his tariffs were to protect American IP.

2. If Trump were truly interested in halting this theft, he would file a complaint with the WTO, which has explicit procedures for settling such disputes. As far as I know, Trump hasn’t done so.

3. Trump’s allegations of Chinese law-breaking are hypocritical and ring hollow given that his unilaterally imposed tariffs are themselves a clear violation of WTO rules – rules that the U.S. has agreed to follow.

4. Trump’s tariffs are first and foremost punitive taxes on Americans who buy imports from China – that is, these tariffs are government actions that weaken and restrict the property rights of millions of Americans. I believe it to be unjust for our government to violate the rights of one (large) group of Americans in the name of protecting the rights of another (smaller) group of Americans. Why are the rights of we American consumers to spend our earnings as we choose of lesser importance than are the rights of American producers who operate in China not to have their IP stolen?

5. American victims of China’s IP theft could avoid much of this theft simply by refusing to do business in China, and yet many American companies continue to do business there. This reality strengthens point #4: Why should Uncle Sam restrict the freedom of millions of Americans in order to protect the property rights of other Americans who voluntarily – and, apparently, also profitably – put their property at risk by operating in China?

Once again, if Trump were a credible free trader, his identification of Chinese IP theft as a reason to impose tariffs on Americans who buy Chinese imports would be believable even to those of us who would nevertheless oppose such tariffs. But because Trump is, and has long been, a cartoonish protectionist, he has no credibility when he offers superficially plausible reasons to impose punitive taxes on American buyers of imports.

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