Rethinking Free Trade III

From Part I:

Economists defend free trade and open borders because, in the aggregate, such things — in the long run — lead to greater economic efficiency and thus to greater total output (measured in constant dollars). And they are right about that. I have no doubt of it. But, to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, in the long run we are all dead, and in the meantime some of us pay for the betterment of others.

Moreover, there are economists and others who like to conjoin the economic truth about the long-run consequences of free trade and open borders with statements about liberty: People ought to be free to exchange goods and services voluntarily. People ought to be free to live where they like.

Only a jejune anarchist will take such pronouncements as absolutes. Murder for hire is almost almost universally disapproved, as are many other crimes, even in this “enlightened”age. And I am unaware of a movement among affluent leftists to open their living rooms to the homeless, nor to repeal laws against trespass.

The question is, as always, where to strike a balance between the interests of those who benefit from free trade and open borders, and the interests of those for whom such things mean loss of income or higher taxes. How do the gains that accrue to some (e.g., less-expensive Lexi and abundant, low-priced nanny services) offset the burdens borne by working-class taxpayers whose jobs move overseas and whose school taxes rise to cover the costs of educating migrant children?

I ask these questions in connection with a broader issue: the purpose of our national government….

To put it bluntly but correctly, the national government exists not for the benefit of the people of the whole world or any part of it outside the United States, but for the benefit of the citizens of the United States.

From Part II:

[T]here will be in the short run (and sometimes even in the long run) a downward shift in the demand for labor in some sectors of the economy due to actions taken by foreign governments. Those actions consist of direct subsidies to industries that export goods to the U.S., and indirect subsidies in the form of tariffs and quotas on goods imported from the U.S.

I have seen “libertarian” economists justify direct subsidies because they benefit American consumers. (The same economists are glaringly silent about the disbenefits to American workers whose jobs are lost because of the subsidies.) It is jarring to read justifications of that kind from “libertarians”, who are usually quick to put Americans and foreigners on the same plane; for example, by promoting and praising “open borders” despite considerable disbenefits to some Americans. (I am thinking of  those whose neighborhoods are threatened by gangs of illegals. I am also thinking of those who pay higher taxes to subsidize the education, shelter, sustenance, and schooling of illegals — but who, unlike more affluent Americans, don’t engage the services of low-priced nannies and yard workers.)

And I must point out that those foreign-government subsidies aren’t free. They’re paid for, one way or another, by the citizens of foreign countries. Why would a “libertarian” transnationalist overlook such a thing? To justify “free trade” I guess.

It’s only fair to note that the U.S. government subsidizes American industries in ways that harm foreigners, that is, through direct subsidies, tariffs on imports, and import quotas. But any gains to workers in the industries thus subsidized do not offset the harm that foreign-government subsidies do to workers in other American industries.

All in all, international trade is a real mess. (So is domestic trade, given the myriad distortions wrought by taxes and regulations.) But it’s fair to say that some American workers are harmed by what can only be called unfair practices in international trade. The harm to them isn’t offset by the gains to other Americans. Only an economist or socialist would think otherwise.

In sum, I have come around to Mr. Trump’s view of this issue. Trade should be conducted on a level playing field. Given that that won’t happen soon — if ever — what should be done for American workers who are harmed by unfair trade? Stay tuned.

One thing that shouldn’t be done for American workers is to establish government-run “retraining” programs, which would enable civil servants and contractors to feed at the public trough while doing little or nothing for workers. What would the workers be retrained to do? Government entities are notoriously good at stasis, and notoriously bad at responding to market signals.

Then there is the challenge of identifying and quantifying the effects of unfair trade on specific American workers. I can see it now: quotas for persons of color, persons with gender dysphoria, persons of the female persuasion, etc., etc., etc. All of which would add up to another vast misallocation of resources.

What about vouchers instead of government programs? See the preceding paragraph.

Here’s how I would do it:

  • Estimate the amount by which the price of a foreign product or service is reduced by the actions of foreign governments or their proxies.
  • Add that amount to the price as a tariff.
  • Regularly review and adjust the schedule of tariffs.

All other trade would be unencumbered, excepting:

  • the importation of products and services otherwise restricted by U.S. law (e.g., tanks, artillery pieces)
  • the exportation of products and services that are used directly in the development, manufacture, and operation of sensitive military systems (e.g., fighter aircraft, anti-missile defenses).

Selective tariffs, based on actual costs of production, would encourage the efficient use of resources and protect American workers who would otherwise be victimized by unfair trade. But that’s it. Sweeping tariffs on imports — just to “protect” American workers — do more than protect them. They also penalize American consumers, most of whom are also workers.

No “solution” can be perfect in an imperfect (i.e., real) world. That’s the best I can do for now.

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