I’ve reacted favorably to much of the Trump Administration’s economic agenda, but foreign trade has been a huge area of concern. Trump’s rhetoric on trade was bellicose on the campaign trail. Thus far in office he has succeeded in upending or threatening trade agreements: he pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, a multilateral trade agreement involving 11 of our Asian trading partners; he has also promised that NAFTA will be renegotiated. This week, he imposed tariffs on solar panels produced in China and washing machines built in South Korea. You will now be forced to pay a penalty tax on any purchase of those products.

Renegotiating existing trade agreements is one thing (though my ideal is unilateral elimination of trade barriers), as is a general preference for bilateral agreements, particularly if they remain focused on trade and not extraneous social issues. But I sincerely hope that the latest move is not the start of a long rollout of tariffs and other protectionist measures. Unfortunately, more such moves are expected.

What possible logic can explain these actions? To hear Donald Trump tell it, the U.S. must enforce trade laws and establish a “level playing field”. So, perhaps this is a form of negotiation. If so, are the cards we hold so strong that we can afford to risk retaliation in the form of tariffs levied on our own exports? Do our trading partners value our business so much that they will not retaliate? Would those countries offer to remove any subsidies they grant their own export industries? Would they tell those industries they must be price followers regardless of cost structure and taxes, charging no less than their American competitors? Can we dictate the terms of trade with these parties? Trump apparently thinks so, but we shall see. I believe the answer is almost certainly no.

Retaliation is likely; this is how trade wars begin, and they have a way of precipitating economic contraction. But that risk represents only one part of the cost of Trump’s tariff action. The real problem is the likely impact of the Trump tariffs on American consumers, American production, and on America’s long-run competitiveness.

  1. Prices: Tariffs are essentially a tax on imports. A significant share of the burden of that tax will be borne by consumers. The price they pay for the import will rise to reflect a portion of the tariff. If, instead, they opt to purchase the American product after the imposition of the tariff, that is a coerced and suboptimal decision based on their existing preferences. They are likely to pay more to the American producer than in the absence of the tariff on the import because American producers will face less competitive pressure. Thus, American consumers will be penalized by the tariff whether they continue to purchase the import or not.
  2. Output: Quantities purchased fall when prices rise. That is the law of demand. American consumers will buy less of the import and less overall, so consumers lose on both price and quantity. But it’s worse than that, because domestic producers gain a degree of market power under the tariff. They have greater leeway to price above marginal cost, which implies output restraint. It is therefore quite possible that domestic output will decrease as well.
  3. Competitiveness: Handicapping foreign competitors eases the pressure on domestic producers to perform by reducing costs, pleasing customers, creating value, and innovating. This is not likely to be a sudden change. Rather, it would manifest in a gradual deterioration of competitiveness. Perhaps no one abroad will want our exports, but domestic consumers will have little recourse except to pay the tariff for the foreign good they preferred to begin with. Meanwhile, if other domestic industries are reliant on tariffed imports as inputs to production, they too will suffer a loss of competitiveness.

I tend to be skeptical of any claim that a foreign government facilitates (or engages in) predatory pricing on American markets. Of course they might. And I know… the U.S. itself has thrown subsidies at solar panels in the past. (Well how unfair!) However, the facts are that in a variety of industries, foreign producers actually have cost advantages over U.S. producers. The very idea of trade is to take advantage of such differences for mutual gain. We buy things from others precisely because we can’t do it all ourselves, at least not without great sacrifice (high cost).

It is all too easy for domestic producers to cry “protect us”, and to claim that national security demands protection. These claims are often accepted with little if any analysis. The pleas for protection are characteristic of rent-seeking crony capitalism. And it isn’t as if Americans have nothing to gain in the exchange: cheap consumer goods and cheap inputs for domestic producers. The income released via low foreign pricing is available for other uses, including saving, larger quantities, or spending on other goods.

American consumers pay the price of trade restrictions and tariffs in several ways. The restrictions not only cost them directly in terms of higher prices, but they also represent a violation of consumer sovereignty and tend to restrain output. That a central authority would deign to prohibit or penalize certain consumer decisions is abominable. One can assert that the actions protect workers, but that is a fiction and holds only in the short-run at best. Remember that workers are consumers in the first instance. Ultimately, the trade restrictions degrade the ability of those workers to compete on world markets. In short, they are destructive. At the link above, George Will quotes Henry George to that effect:

What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.