March 18, 2002
Steel Tariffs are Taxes on American Consumers
The administration’s recent decision to impose a 30 percent tariff on steel imports was disappointing to free trade advocates. This measure will hurt far more Americans than it will help, and it takes a step backwards toward the protectionist thinking that dominated Washington in decades past. These steel tariffs also make it quite clear that the rhetoric about free trade in Washington is abandoned and replaced with talk of "fair trade" when special interests make demands. What most Washington politicians really believe in is government-managed trade, not free trade. Government-managed trade means government, rather than competence in the marketplace, determines what industries and companies succeed or fail.
It’s easy for some lawmakers to make emotional arguments that tariffs are needed to protect the jobs of American steelworkers, but we never hear about the jobs that will be lost or never created when the cost of steel rises 30 percent. Tariffs are taxes, and imposing new tariffs means raising taxes. Apparently no one in the administration has read Henry Hazlitt’s classic economics text, Economics in one Lesson. Professor Hazlitt’s fundamental lesson was simple: We must examine economic policy by considering the long-term effects of any proposal on all groups. The administration instead chose to focus only on the immediate effects of steel tariffs on one group, the domestic steel industry. This has nothing to do with fairness, and everything to do with political favors. The free market is fair; it alone justly rewards the worthiest competitors. Tariffs reward the strongest Washington lobbies.
We should recognize that the cost of these tariffs will be borne by nearly all Americans, because steel is widely used in the cars we drive and the buildings in which we live and work. The tariffs will especially affect Texas, where building trades use large amounts of imported steel. We will all pay, but the cost will be spread out and hidden, so no one complains. The domestic steel industry, however, has complained- and it has the corporate and union power that scares politicians in Washington. We hear a great deal of criticism of special interests and their stranglehold on Washington, but somehow when we prop up an entire industry that has failed to stay competitive, we’re "protecting American workers." What we’re really doing is taxing all Americans to keep some politically-favored corporations afloat.
If we’re going to protect the steel industry with tariffs, why not other industries? Does every industry that competes with imported goods have the same claim for protection? We’ve propped up the auto industry in the past, now we’re doing it for steel, so who should be next in line? Virtually every American industry competes with at least some imports.
What happened to the wonderful harmony that the World Trade Organization was supposed to bring to global trade? The European Union and other steel-producing nations are preparing to impose retaliatory sanctions to protect their own steel industries, setting the stage for a potential global trade war. Wasn’t the WTO supposed to prevent all this squabbling? Those of us who opposed U.S. membership in the WTO were scolded as being out of touch, unwilling to see the promise of a new global prosperity. What we’re seeing instead is increased hostility from our trading partners and threats of economic sanctions from our WTO masters. This is what happens when we let government-managed trade schemes pick winners and losers in the global trading game. The truly deplorable thing about all of this is that the WTO is touted as promoting free trade!
It’s always amazing to me that Washington gives so much lip service to free trade while never adhering to true free trade principles. Free trade really means freedom- the freedom to buy and sell goods and services free from government interference. Time and time again, history proves that tariffs don’t work. I sincerely hope that the administration’s position on steel does not signal a willingness to resort to protectionism whenever special interests make demands in the future.