If I were to come to you and say “What this country needs is higher taxes in order to make us all rich,” you would correctly conclude that I had lost my mind or my principles. But if I were to come to you and say, “What this country needs is higher tariffs to make us all rich,” a considerable number of you would say, “You know, he’s absolutely right.”
What you need to understand is that these two statements are the same, economically speaking: “What this country needs is higher taxes to make us rich” and “What this country needs is higher tariffs to make us rich.”
Why are they the same? Because a tariff is a tax. This is the “dirty little secret” that every promoter of higher tariffs never tells you. It is the secret revealed by economic analysis ever since Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), which is why those people who publicly promote tariffs are very seldom trained economists, and why those few who are economists are devoted followers of John Maynard Keynes and hostile to the idea of economic freedom.
Something for Nothing?
The fundamental principle of economics is the fact of scarcity: “At zero price, there will be greater demand for most goods than there is supply of these goods.” This means that whenever we hear someone offer a scheme that promises us something for nothing, especially a scheme enforced by the State, we should be on the alert. “Put your hand upon your wallet and your back against the wall!”
The defenders of tariffs insist that tariffs are the one remarkable exception to the logic of economics. We can raise tariffs (get the government to collect more sales taxes on imported goods), and in doing so, stimulate the economy and increase our nation’s per capita wealth. Let’s think about this for a moment. Higher sales taxes are beneficial to the economy? That is what the tariff advocate is saying, though he never says it this way. (If he said it this way. nobody would believe him.)
This is Keynesianism with a vengeance: tax and tax, spend and spend. This is the tax collectors’ siren song. “We’ll take your money, and you’ll be so much better off!” This is the economics of the New Deal: tax ourselves rich. Yet conservatives buy this argument almost every time when the word “tariff” is substituted for “tax,” unless they have read and have also understood Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson or some similar free market economics book. They instinctively have faith in word magic: substitute a different word, and the laws of economics no longer apply.
The argument for tariffs as wealth-creating devices is the equivalent of the logic of the perpetual motion machine. It is the logic of something for nothing. Only a few pathetic, naïve, and misinformed souls ever get taken in by the professional hustlers who sell them on the idea of investing in some perpetual motion machine project. Unfortunately, millions upon millions of voters are quite willing to open their wallets to the Federal government whenever the politicians promise endless wealth for all Americans–through higher tariffs.
When they vote for this compulsory wealth-redistribution scheme, voters (as consumers) get exactly what they deserve: poorer. The inefficient domestic manufacturers who temporarily prosper under tariff protection–wealth redistribution by threat of government violence–get what they in no sense deserve: richer.
If the government imposes tariffs, it collects the money for its own purposes, and those few domestic manufacturers that had faced stiff foreign competition can prosper awhile longer. Import quotas are ‘tax-less tariffs,’ but they have the same effect on consumers that tariffs do: to increase domestic prices by forcibly reducing the available supply of consumer goods. Both quotas and tariffs reduce the number of goods that producers are able to offer for sale prices that consumers are willing to pay.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)