The best way to look at tariffs or import quotas or other protectionist restraints is to forget about political boundaries.
Political boundaries of nations may be important for other reasons, but they have no economic meaning whatever. Suppose, for example, that each state of the United States were a separate nation. Then we would hear a lot of protectionist bellyaching that we are now fortunately spared. Think of the howls by inefficient, high-priced New York or Rhode Island textile manufacturers who would then be complaining about the “unfair,” “cheap labor” competition from various low-type “foreigners” from Tennessee or North Carolina, or vice versa. Fortunately, the absurdity of worrying about the balance of payments is made evident by focusing on interstate trade. For nobody worries about the balance of payments between New York and New Jersey, or, for that matter, between Manhattan and Brooklyn, because there are no customs officials recording such trade and such balances.
If we think about it, it is clear that a call by New York firms for a tariff against North Carolina is a pure ripoff of New York (as well as North Carolina) consumers, a naked grab for coerced special privilege by inefficient business firms. If the 50 states were separate nations, the protectionists would then be able to use the trappings of patriotism, and distrust of foreigners, to camouflage and get away with their looting the consumers of their own region.
Fortunately, interstate tariffs are unconstitutional. But even with this clear barrier, and even without being able to wrap themselves in the cloak of nationalism, protectionists have been able to impose interstate tariffs in another guise. Part of the drive for continuing increases in the federal minimum wage law is to impose a protectionist device against lower-wage, lower-labor-cost competition from North Carolina and other southern states against their New England and New York competitors.
During the 1966 Congressional battle over a higher federal minimum wage, for example, the late Senator Jacob Javits (R,NY) freely admitted that one of his main reasons for supporting the bill was to cripple the southern competitors of New York textile firms. Since southern wages are generally lower than in the north, the business firms (and the workers struck by unemployment) hardest hit by an increased minimum wage will be located in the south.
Another way in which interstate trade restrictions have been imposed has been in the fashionable name of “safety.” Government-organized state milk cartels in New York, for example, have prevented importation of milk from nearby New Jersey under the patently spurious grounds that the trip across the Hudson would render New Jersey milk “unsafe.” If tariffs and restraints on trade are good for a country, then why not indeed for a state or region? The principle is precisely the same. In America’s first great depression, the Panic of 1819, Detroit was a tiny frontier town of only a few hundred people. Yet protectionist cries arose-fortunately not fulfilled-to prohibit all “imports” from outside of Detroit, and citizens were exhorted to “buy only Detroit.” If this nonsense had been put into effect, general starvation and death would have ended all other economic problems for Detroiters.
So why not restrict and even prohibit trade, i.e. “imports,” into a city, or a neighborhood, or even on a block, or, to boil it down to its logical conclusion, to one family? Why shouldn’t the Jones family issue a decree that from now on, no member of the family can buy any goods or services produced outside the family house? Starvation would quickly wipe out this ludicrous drive for self-sufficiency.
And yet we must realize that this absurdity is inherent in the logic of protectionism. Standard protectionism is just as preposterous, but the rhetoric of nationalism and national boundaries has been able to obscure this vital fact.
The upshot is that protectionism is not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense, destructive of all economic prosperity. We are not, if we were ever, a world of self-sufficient farmers. The market economy is one vast latticework throughout the world, in which each individual, each region, each country, produces what he or it is best at, most relatively efficient in, and exchanges that product for the goods and services of others. Without the division of labor and the trade based upon that division, the entire world would starve. Coerced restraints on trade-such as protectionism-cripple, hobble, and destroy trade, the source of life and prosperity. Protectionism is simply a plea that consumers, as well as general prosperity, be hurt so as to confer permanent special privilege upon groups of inefficient producers, at the expense of competent firms and of consumers. But it is a peculiarly destructive kind of bailout, because it permanently shackles trade under the cloak of patriotism.
Excerpted from Protectionism and the Destruction of Prosperity, Published in The Free Market Reader.