San Francisco politicians constantly treat reality as if it’s optional. For instance, through strict zoning and other land-use regulations, they have artificially inflated the wealth of single-family homeowners by obstructing the building of multifamily homes. As a result, San Francisco is one of the least affordable cities for younger and lower-income people. Its politicians then double down with rent-control regulations to try to fix the negative impacts of their zoning rules. Yet these regulations only further reduce the supply, and further raise the price, of housing in the city. Yet to this day, elected officials there persist in their misguided policymaking, against the advice of every economist.
The people of yore faced at least three interrelated problems. First, the means of transport and the transportation infrastructure were awful. On land, the Europeans used the same haulage methods (carts pulled by donkeys, horses, and oxen) that the ancients had invented. Similarly, much of Europe continued to use roads built by the Romans. Most people never left their native villages or visited the nearest towns. They had no reason to do so, for all that was necessary to sustain their meager day-to-day existence was produced locally. The second problem was the lack of important information. It could take weeks to raise the alarm about impending food shortages, let alone organize relief for stricken communities. Third, regional trade was seldom free (France did not have a single internal market until the Revolution) and global trade remained relatively insignificant in economic terms until the second half of the 19th century. Food was both scarce and expensive. In 15th-century England, 80 percent of ordinary people’s private expenditure went for food. Of that amount, 20 percent was spent on bread alone. Under those circumstances, a local crop failure could spell the destruction of an entire community. (Those who think that COVID-19 exposed the fragility of modern society should look up the Great Famine.)
The steel tariffs were implemented under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which allows presidents to impose tariffs for national security reasons—not for purposes of economic protectionism. But protectionism appears to be a major factor in determining whether tariff exemptions are granted. American steelmakers appear to have significant influence over what is supposed to be an unbiased process.