One of the hottest topics in the last few months has been President Trump’s rolling out of a series of tariffs on key input goods such as steel and aluminum, and more recently the threat of across-the-board tariffs on Chinese goods. Not only have these threats sparked concerns in the financial markets and threats of retaliation by China and other US trade partners, but they’ve sparked a fierce debate within the Republican Party about free trade and whether it is good for the United States.
On one hand you have the so-called “paleo-conservatives” led by individuals such as Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan who insist that the United States has been harmed economically by free trade agreements such as NAFTA and that the nation would be better off getting out of these agreements and increasing tariffs on imports — especially in retaliation for bad behavior from China with regards to intellectual property. On the other side, you have the traditional conservative, classical liberal, and even moderate wings of the party which strongly favor free trade and multilateral trade agreements.
If you look at history and economic facts, there is no question that free trade is better for a country than protectionist tariffs are. There is a long and unhappy history of the damages that tariffs have inflicted on the American economy, with the steel tariffs enacted by George W. Bush in the 2000s and the ensuing costs standing as the most recent iteration of the failures of protectionism. Despite this overwhelming evidence, there are many who stubbornly deny reality, so I want to take this issue and address it from a different angle — the moral case against tariffs. How do tariffs interact with individual rights and economic freedom?
Starting from the basics, it is self-evident that all individuals inherently possess rights that come from God, not government, and among them are the right to life, speech, religious practice, association, property ownership, and voluntary contracts. Moral or natural law dictates that individuals should be free to enjoy these rights to their fullest so long as in doing so they do not violate the equal freedom of others. You are free to own and control your property, enter into voluntary contracts with whomever you choose, and speak your mind so long as you’re not preventing someone else from doing so. The purpose of government, why we create them at all, is to enforce this natural law and protect these self-existent rights.
When a government institutes a tariff, it is using force, in the form of a tax, to prevent or punish a consumer for entering into a voluntary contract with another willing party. It is essentially saying to the American citizen, “We don’t like it when you exercise your rights and enter into voluntary contracts with that company or person, so we will stop you or punish you for it by making it more expensive for you.” This is an intrusion on the rights of the American consumer, as government is not protecting the right of the consumer but limiting it. The American consumer through his or her entering into the voluntary contract with the foreign company or producer is not violating the rights of any other individual. No harm to any other citizen’s rights, property, or freedom is occurring, yet government is punishing the consumer as if it were. If a private citizen threatened and punished consumers for not buying his products, he would rightfully be condemned. But if it is the government doing it on behalf of a special interest, apparently that is okay. This is a misuse of government power and an immoral use of force.
Of course, all taxation could be described this way, but as conservatives we know that some taxation is necessary to provide for the common defense and ensure domestic tranquility. As a necessary evil, taxation should be rendered with as little bias and intrusiveness as possible. A tariff makes government interference far too arbitrary, expanding the negative consequences of taxation and further harming the economy. Tariffs and protectionism also create a strong incentive for corporatism — the use of government power to pick winners and losers, making corruption inevitable.
For those of us who are conservatives and believe in conserving the natural rights of American citizens, including their economic freedom, it would be inconsistent to support any use of government power that restricts freedom, not upholds it. If we condemn government force being introduced in the domestic market on principle, then we should also on principle be opposed to government force being used in trade. Yes, Chinese theft of American intellectual property is a problem, but using force against American citizens and their rights is not the answer. Tariffs will cause more harm to Americans than to the Chinese. Let us remember that we are attempting to conserve freedom and that not only is it the economically smart thing to do, but it is the morally right thing to do.