Earlier, I wrote about how bureaucrats deciding which businesses and industries will be hit by tariffs on steel and aluminum was bad policy. Allowing the government to pick winners and losers is never good economic policy, as it replaces the efficiency of the market with the arbitrariness of politicians. But that’s not the only kind of trade-related decision that unelected Washingtonians are making that will affect American businesses and workers—they’re also deciding which countries will and won’t be subjected to the tariffs.
The official purpose of these tariffs was to protect the domestic steel industry. Of course, the irony of “protecting” national security by doing to oneself what enemy countries attempt to do in wartime, restrict access to imports, is palpable. Yet even so, how can this justification be made with a straight face while exempting certain countries from tariffs? One can make an argument for exempting countries the United States shares a border with, such as Mexico or Canada, but can the United States count on steel imports from South Korea if forced to go to war with North Korea?
Of course, the real purpose of the tariffs is to protect jobs. They won’t do that—the tariffs project to cost 470,000 of them. But selecting which countries get a reprieve from tariffs, Trump looks to return us to the era of mercantilism and adversarial trade relationships. Trade wars are not just hard to win, they’re impossible, Trade relationships are by definition better, on net, than a lack of trade, as trade makes each country wealthier. The growth in global trade since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1948 correlates with the explosion of global wealth in the post-World War 2 era.
Foreign businesses and governments should not have to lobby to avoid import taxes. Import taxes are just another tax on American consumers and businesses for the benefit of a small and profitable industry. Small-government conservatives should oppose this expansion of the government’s involvement in the economy for the benefit of well-connected interests.