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Tariffs as Enemies of Freedom


Some prominent protectionists, such as Pat Buchanan, are portraying high tariffs as an engine of national liberation — as a way to save Americans from foreign threats. However, tariffs always have been and always will be an enemy to individual freedom. The U.S. tariff code is the accumulated junk heap of two centuries of political payoffs and kickbacks. In 1790, the Tariff Code consisted of a single sheet of rates posted at U.S. customhouses; now, the code occupies two hefty volumes with 8,753 different rates, a blizzard of arbitrary discriminations against and among products. This is equivalent to more than 8,000 different industrial policies —s and 8,000 different entitlement programs for protected domestic industries.

The United States has the best tariff code that American industry can buy. While the average tariff is now around 5%, some tariffs are still in the stratosphere. Low-priced watch parts are hit with a 151.2% tariff and tariffs on some shoe imports are 67%. The tariff code is a precise mathematical measure of the political clout of various Washington lobbies.

America’s tariff-makers perceive the vast differences between similar products that ordinary mortals miss. The tariff on duck liver is 16 times higher than the tariff on goose liver. The tariff on grape wine with low alcoholic content is six times higher than the tariff on grape wine with high alcoholic content. The tariff on vodka worth less than $2.05 a liter is 13 times higher than the tariff on higher-priced vodka. Gjetost cheese, made from goat’s milk, pays a 6.5% tariff, while goya cheese, made from cow’s milk, pays a 25% tariff. (This proves that the cow lobby is stronger than the goat lobby.)

Congress apparently believes that not all the malnourished should be treated equally. Vitamin B-12, which is necessary to prevent anemia and is no longer produced in the United States, is hit with a 16.2% tariff, while vitamin B-2, vital for avoiding stunted growth, pays only a 7.8% rate. Vitamin C carries a 3% tariff, while vitamin E is hit with a 7% levy.

Looking at tariffs on medicine and medical equipment, one might think that tariff policy is secretly controlled by Christian Scientists. Aspirin carries a 10.2% tariff, which makes as much sense as providing a federal subsidy for headaches. The tariff on antidepressants and tranquilizers is 16.6% — a full-employment program for therapists. Congress deters the import of sulfathiazole, an anti-infective agent, with a 15% tariff.

“Death by tariff” results when higher prices caused by tariffs result in fewer people’s using lifesaving drugs or equipment. In 1984, a West German company developed a lithotripter that destroys kidney stones by shock waves from outside the body. Kidney stones are a common and often serious medical ailment: more than 250,000 people a year are admitted to hospitals for kidney-stone treatment, and 1,149 people died of kidney-stone disease in 1985. The new German machine was a vast improvement over existing methods of surgical removal of kidney stones. Although no American companies were producing competing machines, the Customs Service imposed a 7.9% tariff on the German product. The Saint Joseph Medical Center of Burbank, California, paid a $189,964.32 tariff on a single lithotripter.

The high tariff strongly discouraged more American hospitals from importing the medically advanced German machine. As a result, thousands of Americans in the mid-to-late 1980s had to undergo painful surgery and relatively long recuperation. (The recuperation time for shock-wave treatment is less than half the recuperation time for traditional kidney surgery.) Many deaths from kidney-stone surgery could have been avoided if American hospitals had not been deterred by the U.S. tariff code from quickly adopting this new technology.

Some high tariffs are remnants of previous trade wars. In 1963, in retaliation for European tariffs on American chickens, the United States raised the tariff on truck imports to 25%. The 25% rate has remained even though the “Chicken War” has been over for decades.

U.S. tariff policy assumes that it is better to let the poor go hungry than to allow them to eat foreign food. The United States imposes more than 500 different taxes to deter foreign food from invading American stomachs, including a 40% tariff on orange juice, a 20% tariff on yogurt, a 35% tariff on tuna, a 28.6% tariff on frozen chicken, and a 30% tariff on mushrooms.

The tariff on a special wool-blend fabric used to make firefighters’ protective garments is 33%. When Rep. Richard Roe proposed in 1988 to reduce this tariff, the American Textile Manufacturers Institute (ATMI) objected. Even though American companies did not produce the special fabric, ATMI thought some companies might choose to make the product if the tariff were kept high. A few more singed firemen is a small price to pay for the possibility that a domestic firm might deign to make a fabric already supplied by foreign companies.

Tariffs are not merely a slight nuisance imposed by government clerks at the national borders. Economist Henry George observed more than a hundred years ago:

“Protective tariffs are as much applications of force as are blockading squadrons, and their object is the same — to prevent trade. The difference between the two is that blockading squadrons are a means whereby nations seek to prevent their enemies from trading; protective tariffs are a means whereby nations attempt to prevent their own people from trading…. So far as foreigners are concerned it only indirectly affects their freedom to trade with that particular country, while to citizens of that country it is a direct curtailment of the freedom to trade with all the world.”

Trade is an issue not simply of exchanging widgets for gadgets — but of how people live their daily lives. Since practically no one can make all the things he wears, eats, and uses, a person’s living standard and opportunity in life depend largely on his opportunities for trading the product of his labor with others. Pervasive trade barriers effectively force people to use inferior building blocks for their life. Trade barriers are an attempt by politicians to control the market. And politicians cannot control the market without commanding everyone who must rely on that market. The Joint Economic Committee of Congress observed in 1956:

“For a government official to make a moral judgment on how we ought to spend our money is an invasion of liberty and privacy which is acceptable only where obvious public harm follows.”

If the government prohibited Americans from corresponding with citizens in the rest of the world, no one would deny that citizens’ liberties had been trampled. Until recently, the Soviet government did not directly intervene to prohibit each Soviet citizen from reading foreign books; it simply prohibited almost all foreign books from entering the nation. What is the difference in principle between the Soviets’ prohibiting entry of almost all foreign books and the U.S. government’s prohibiting the entry of almost all foreign ice cream, peanuts, butter, and dry milk? The Soviet Union sought to protect the ruling class from competition from political ideas from abroad, while the United States sought to protect politically dominant industries from competition from foreign products. Freedom of choice is as important in how one lives as in what one reads.

Either the government has a valid moral reason for restricting one citizen’s freedom in order to boost another citizen’s profits, or a trade barrier is unjust. Protectionism means robbing Peter to pay Paul — or, more accurately, robbing a thousand Peters to pay one Paul. Oswald Garrison Villard, the editor of The Nation, observed in 1947:

“Every citizen who has sufficient influence to get Congress to interfere with natural trade laws by creating a tariff dam across the currents of international trade, becomes a price dictator to all his fellow citizens.”

In trade policy, government cannot pick winners without turning everyone else into losers. Every trade barrier constitutes a moral judgment that certain groups of producers, workers, and shareholders will be treated as superior to the rest of society. William Graham Sumner observed in 1888: “The protectionist, instead of ‘creating a new industry,’ has simply taken one industry and set it as a parasite to live upon another.” The government protects the steel industry by sacrificing precision metal makers and agricultural equipment exporters. The government protects 11,000 sugar growers by sacrificing the sugar refining and food manufacturing industries.

If current trade restrictions embody any notion of fairness, it is a fluke, since fairness had nothing to do with how they were established. The only consistent formula of fair trade is “whatever politicians think best” — or, more accurately, “whatever politicians can agree upon.” For American trade policy, need is the basis of right, and political contributions are the measure of need. The only thing that has morally sanctified most American trade barriers is time — the passage of years that allows people to forget the blatant political rigging that begot the trade barrier.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.