Many economists and commentators have pointed out that while President Trump’s imposition of tariffs on foreign producers of steel and aluminum constitutes an attack on foreigners, it will inevitably cause economic harm to Americans, not only because it will make products more expensive but also because foreign nations are likely to retaliate with tariffs of their own.
They are, of course, correct. It is absolutely amazing that almost 250 years after the publication of Adam Smith’s treatise The Wealth of Nations there are still people who oppose free trade and favor economic protectionism. The fact that a U.S. president is among the protectionists boggles the mind, especially given that Trump nonsensically relishes “trade wars” and is convinced that he can “win” them.
Lost in the utilitarian arguments in favor of free trade, however, is something much more important: Trump’s tariff attacks infringes on our freedom — the freedom of the American people.
My money belongs to me. It doesn’t belong to you, the federal government, or anyone else. It’s mine. It’s my private property.
Since my money belongs to me, I have the right to do whatever I want with it — save, donate, invest, spend, or even burn it. That’s what the right of private property is all about — the right of the owner do whatever he wants with what belongs to him, so long as he isn’t violating the rights of anyone else.
What is the nature and origin of this right? The Declaration of Independence provides the answer — people’s rights come from nature and from God. They do not come from the government.
I would venture to say that at least 99 percent of Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, which commemorates the date on which the Declaration of Independence was signed. (Ironically, the year it was signed — 1776 — was also the year that Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published.) But how many Americans truly agree with the core message that Thomas Jefferson set forth in the Declaration?
I’m not referring to the list of reasons why the British colonists decided to take up arms against their own government. People might agree or disagree with those reasons. But the reasons for seceding from the British Empire is not why the Declaration has shaken political rulers and political regimes all over the world ever since the Declaration was published.
The core message of the Declaration, which is perhaps the most radical political message ever delivered, was this: Everyone (not just Americans) has been endowed with natural, God-given rights. Therefore, no one has to be grateful to any government for his rights. That’s because rights don’t come from the government. They preexist government. In fact, as Jefferson points out, the only reason governments are instituted by people is to ensure the protection of their natural, God-given, preexisting rights. Moreover, as the Declaration also observes, when government becomes destructive of people’s rights, people have the right to alter or abolish it and institute new government.
When Americans think about rights, many of them think primarily in terms of the rights enunciated in the First Amendment — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press and in terms of civil liberties — due process of law, trial by jury, the right to vote, the right to petition government for redress of grievances, and others.
But as the Ninth Amendment makes clear, everyone is endowed with other natural, God-given rights that preexist government. These include life, liberty, privacy, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Although it is not specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, economic liberty is every bit as important as every other aspect of liberty. This right encompasses the sustaining and improving one’s life through labor and through entering into economic trades with others. No government, including the U.S. government, wields the legitimate authority to infringe on economic liberty or any other natural, God-given right.
When Trump imposes his tariffs on foreign producers, he is infringing on the economic liberty of the American people and their right to purchase whatever they want from whomever they want on whatever terms they find satisfactory. Unfortunately, all too many Americans, even though they continue to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, passively accept the destruction of their natural, God-given rights at the hands of their own government. If only Americans opposed the destruction of their economic liberty as fervently as they would if Trump were destroying their freedom of speech, their religious liberty, or their right to vote.