Revisiting Bastiat’s parable.
As president of the most powerful country in the world — and a man with the utmost confidence in his own judgment — would Donald Trump dare to tell the Sun, that fiery ball at the center of our solar system, “You’re fired!”
It seems so, if we take him at his recently tweeted word (“Trade wars are good, and easy to win”) and take the liberty of injecting him into the center of the argument found in the “Candle Maker’s Petition,” a satire of protectionist tariffs written by the great French economist, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850).
In this classic economic parable, published in 1845 as an “open letter” to the French Parliament, the manufacturers of “candles, tapers, lanterns, and street lamps” join forces with the producers of “tallow, oil, resins, and alcohol” in demanding protection against a powerful foreign competitor — namely, the sun. They ask for a law ordering their countrymen to keep all windows and doors covered during the day. Their petition states:
We are suffering from the intolerable competition of a foreign rival, placed, it would seem, in a condition so far superior to ours for the production of light that he absolutely inundates our national market with it at a price fabulously reduced.
If a government were to order everyone to switch from sunlight to candle light, it might create or preserve a number of jobs in candle-making and related industries, but it would also impoverish a far larger number of people — forcing them to replace a free and plentiful resource for an inferior yet costly product. In this case, the money that people would spend on additional lighting products would raise profits for candle makers, but, as a needless expense for everyone else, it would lower disposable incomes and reduce productivity across the board (forcing even candle makers to work in poorly lit and possibly dangerous conditions).
The same logic applies today if the president proceeds with plans to slap a 25 percent tariff on steel imports, along with a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports. Above all, such duties would hurt a thousand or more people for every one they help — limiting choice and pushing up prices for most consumers, while imposing a significant burden on steel-dependent industries that employ 6.5 million people, or close to 50 times the number of steelworkers (140,000).
In the opening words of his essay, Bastiat paid mocking tribute to politicians opposed to free trade, saying: “Gentlemen: You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.”
The “economic nationalists” of today’s world are a throwback to the mercantilists of Bastiat’s era. They worry about producers rather than consumers, and they are not overly concerned about the effect that protective tariffs may have in turning what had been abundant supplies of the targeted goods into painful shortages.
Free markets and free trade come down to the same thing: voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. It makes no difference whether that happens inside a country or across national borders. In the absence of job- and growth-destroying government coercion, the buyer or consumer holds the upper hand. In a competitive marketplace, unless buyers agree to part with some of their money for someone else’s product, there is no trade and there are no transactions.
President Trump seems not (or pretends not) to understand that basic idea. Let’s hope it is pretends and more of a temporary negotiating tactic than firmly held conviction.
Andrew B. Wilson, a longtime contributor to The American Spectator, is resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute.
Crepuscular Rays at Noon in Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City (Alex Proimos/Flickr-Creative Commons)