Even Ronald Reagan Couldn’t Use Protectionist Alchemy to Turn Engineered Scarcity Into Economic Abundance

by Don Boudreaux on October 8, 2022

in History, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen, Trade

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:


Dan DiMicco correctly reports that Ronald Reagan sometimes compromised in his opposition to protectionism (Letters, October 8). But Mr. DiMicco incorrectly insists that Reagan’s compromises are evidence of protectionism’s wisdom.

Consider the three examples of Pres. Reagan’s protectionism that Mr. DiMicco applauds. The 1983 tariff on motorcycles meant to save Harley-Davidson were, as described by leading trade economist Douglas Irwin, “completely ineffectual.” These tariffs applied only to bikes with 700cc or larger engines, while Harley’s engines were 1000cc to 1300cc. Further, Japanese manufacturers adjusted easily to the tariff by producing for the U.S. market motorbikes with 695cc and 699cc engines.*

Even worse were the “voluntary export restraints” that, starting in 1981 under Reagan administration pressure, the Japanese used to restrict their exports of automobiles to America. A 1984 FTC report estimated that these VERs annually cost U.S. consumers $1,109.2 million (in 1983 dollars), nearly ten times more than the $115.3 million of annual gains reaped from these VERs by U.S. automakers. The annual cost per job created was $216,137 – nearly 13.5 times more than the average annual earnings ($16,068) of the American worker in 1983.**

Finally, Mr. DiMicco praises the 1985 Plaza Accord for boosting U.S. exports. But it attempted to do so by devaluing the dollar – that is, by reducing Americans’ purchasing power. While a few domestic producers might have gained from the resulting dampened competition from imports, we Americans as a whole can only have lost from that engineered reduction in our ability to acquire on global markets goods for our consumption as well as inputs for use by businesses here at home.

Even in the hands of Ronald Reagan, protectionism is economic alchemy.

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

* See also Scott Lincicome, “Doomed to Repeat It,” Cato Policy Report, August 22, 2017, page 17.

** David G. Tarr and Morris E. Morkre, “Aggregate Costs to the United States of Tariffs and Quotas on Imports,” Federal Trade Commission (Washington, D.C.), December 1984. See especially pages 8-9. (I estimated the 1983 average annual earnings of the American worker from Table 1 here.)

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