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Two Wrongs Really Don’t Make a Right

Here’s a letter to a Cafe Hayek reader:

Mr. Michael Preston

Mr. Preston:

Unhappy with my recent letter to the Wall Street Journal, you argue that it is ethical for Uncle Sam to impose tariffs on Americans “because of the chance that US tariffs would force other countries to cut theirs – meaning we’d be freer then to trade with other people.”

I disagree that any such chance supplies an ethical justification for U.S. tariffs.

Suppose that your neighbor regularly and severely beats his children, who are your children’s best friends, and that your children are thereby denied the opportunity to enjoy playing with their friends. Further suppose that there’s a positive chance that your neighbor will stop beating his children if he observes you beating your children. Does this positive chance of changing your neighbor’s heinous behavior bestow upon you any ethical justification to beat your children?

I assume that your unequivocal answer is “no,” despite there being a chance that your beating your children will result in them enjoying more time playing with their friends in the future.

And so for the same reason you should answer “no” to U.S. tariffs. The U.S. government acts unethically whenever it, in order to pressure foreign governments to reduce their economic abuse of their citizens, inflicts economic abuse on American citizens.

Adding one wrong to an existing wrong does not sum to one right. Protective tariffs are wrong. They are aggression against people engaged in peaceful commerce. Nothing justifies this aggression. Nothing.

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