Midweek Reader: The Folly of Trump’s Tariffs

With stocks plummeting this week upon an announcement of retaliatory tariffs by China in response to a recent spate of steel and aluminum tariffs from the Trump administration, it seems a midweek reader on the situation is appropriate.

  • At the Washington Post, Rick Noack explains how Trump is going into unprecedented territory since the WTO was founded, and why existing trade norms probably can’t stem a trade war. A slice:

    But while China has used the WTO to accuse the United States of unfairly imposing trade restrictions over the last months, Trump does not appear interested in being dragged into the dispute settlement process. In fact, Trump appears to be deliberately undermining the legitimacy of that process by saying that his tariffs plan was based on “national security” concerns. WTO rules mandate that a member state can claim exceptions from its trade obligations if the member’s national security is at stake.

    That reasoning has long been a no-go among WTO member states, because they understand  that triggering trade disputes under a “national security” framework could eventually render the WTO meaningless.

  • Last month at the Chicago TribuneSteve Chapman had a good op-ed showing why Trump’s justification of steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds is bogus:

    But putting tariffs on all imports to prevent dependence on China or Russia is like throwing away your library card to avoid bad books. It would make more sense to focus on the guilty countries rather than deploy a sprayer that also soaks the innocent.

    The national security risk is minuscule, though. Imports make up only one-third of the steel we use, and the Pentagon requires less than 3 percent of our domestic output. No enemy has us over a barrel, because we buy steel from 110 different countries.

    Most of what we import comes from allies and friends, including Canada, South Korea and Mexico, which would have no reason to cut us off in a crisis. If China stopped shipping to us, friendlier countries would leap to grab the business.

  • Also at the Washington Post last month, historian Marc-William Palen gives numerous historical examples of how nobody wins in trade wars and how they can threaten our national security by arousing populist resentment of the US abroad. A slice:

    The trade wars that followed the Republican passage of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which raised duties on hundreds of imports, similarly contain illustrative lessons for today. Canada responded with tariff increases of its own, for example, as did Europe.

    In a widely cited study from 1934, political economist Joseph M. Jones Jr. explored Europe’s retaliation. His study provided a warning about the trade wars that can arise when a single nation’s tariff policy “threatens with ruin” specialized industries in other countries, arousing “bitterness” throughout their populations.

  • At Cato’s At LibertyDaniel Ikeson explains how Trump’s tariffs establish a dangerous international precedent that will threaten US interests elsewhere:

    By signing these tariffs into law, President Trump has substantially lowered the bar for discretionary protectionism, inviting governments around the world to erect trade barriers on behalf of favored industries.  Ongoing efforts to dissuade China from continuing to force U.S. technology companies to share source code and trade secrets as the cost of entering the Chinese market will likely end in failure, as Beijing will be unabashed about defending its Cybersecurity Law and National Security Law as measures necessary to protect national security.  That would be especially incendiary, given that the Trump administration is pursuing resolution of these issues through another statute—Section 301 of the Trade act of 1974—which could also lead the president to impose tariffs on China unilaterally.

  • The Independent Institute’s Robert Higgs reminds us that citing trade deficits is misleading:

    In reality, individuals, firms and other organizations, and governments trade with other such entities, some of which are located in the same country and others of which are located in other countries. The location of the trading partners has no economic significance whatsoever. Trading entities enter into exchanges voluntarily, each one in each transaction anticipating a gain from the trade. Hence, in expectational terms, every such trade entails a gain from trade, or in other words an addition to the trader’s wealth.

  • At American Greatness, Henry Olsen tries to give a communitarian justification of protectionism:

    So-called populist movements around the world are gaining strength because their voters no longer feel like valued members of their nations. They do not believe their worth should decline because the owners of capital say so, nor do they think their life dreams or values should be denigrated simply because the most educated have different visions.

    Populists like Trump address this spiritual yearning and fulfill the deepest need every human has, to be valued and to belong to a group that values you. In this, and perhaps in this need alone, all men are truly created equal. Tariffs are simply an economic means to fulfill this spiritual need. Tariff opponents can only win if they first recognize this need and promise a more effective way to fulfill it.

  • At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan explains why communitarianism cannot justify protectionist policies:

    Second, if tariffs don’t actually succeed in helping these workers, then the symbolic argument falls flat. Imagine an artist said, “I’m so concerned about the plight of people living in tenements, I’m going to do a performance art project where I burn down all their homes and leave them on the street. Sure, that will make them even worse off, but my heart is in the right place, and I thereby express my concern for them.” This artist would be…a contemptible asshole.

  • Finally, given its relevance at the moment, it’s worth revisiting Paul Krugman’s classic essay “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” which remains the best account of why non-economist intellectuals have a hard understanding free trade:

    (i) At the shallowest level, some intellectuals reject comparative advantage simply out of a desire to be intellectually fashionable. Free trade, they are aware, has some sort of iconic status among economists; so, in a culture that always prizes the avant-garde, attacking that icon is seen as a way to seem daring and unconventional.

    (ii) At a deeper level, comparative advantage is a harder concept than it seems, because like any scientific concept it is actually part of a dense web of linked ideas. A trained economist looks at the simple Ricardian model and sees a story that can be told in a few minutes; but in fact to tell that story so quickly one must presume that one’s audience understands a number of other stories involving how competitive markets work, what determines wages, how the balance of payments adds up, and so on.

From the Comments: More trade, more states?

Nguyen Ha left this thoughtful comment about my post on protectionism in Africa that I am embarrassed I missed:

Would you care to explain how “stronger economic ties will hasten the demise of current African states’ superficial institutions”?

What a tough question! First, though, I stated that it was my hope that deeper trading ties would lead to more states, not my prediction. My hope is based on current trends around the world: stronger economic ties have led to more states (and more aspirations for statehood within existing states).

The best academic treatment on this topic comes from Giacomo Ponzetto, an economist currently at CREI in Barcelona (he’s been mentioned at NOL on more than one occasion, too), and especially the Introduction and Section 5 of his working paper titled “Globalization and Political Structure.” Here:

As globalization proceeds, localities remove borders by increasing the size of countries. The number of countries declines and the mismatch between each locality is ideal and actual provision of public services grows. Eventually, this mismatch is large enough to justify a move to a two-level governance structure. The world political structure shifts from a few large countries to many small countries within a world economic union. The two-level structure is more expensive, but it is nonetheless desirable because it facilitates trade and improves preference-matching in the provision of public services.

By “two-level governance structure” Ponzetto means one level, a locality, that’s focused on delivering public goods to that specific locality, and another level, a world economic union, that’s focused on protecting property rights and eliminating border costs.

You can see this concept play out in a few different federative structures, especially the EU, the US, India, and China. In the European Union, multiple localities have tried to separate from countries (Catalonia from Spain, Scotland from UK) while still remaining part of the international economic union in place. Deeper trade ties, more states.

Three new states were created in India in 2000, and China is currently grappling with federalism as a way to keep up with its predictable economic success. The US hasn’t seen any new states added since 1959, but that’s because its system does a good enough job overall to keep all its member states content (happy, even).

The free trade zone in Africa will be interesting to watch because there are so many different variables at play than in China, the EU, India, or the US. India was governed by one overseas empire; the EU has been able to maintain stability because of American military power and the security umbrella it provides; China has been unified on and off again for centuries; and the US is, for all intents and purposes, a polity underscored by British cultural, economic, and political mores. Africa has none of these traits, yet its various leaders recognize that free trade leads to prosperity and often (not always) to better diplomatic ties.

If all goes well, and current trends elsewhere are any indication, Africa would see more states come into being to go along with its deeper economic ties. (This might be a major factor why Nigeria refused to join; Abuja fought a vicious civil war in the 1970s against separatists in Biafra and its leaders are probably tacitly aware of current global trends.) If all doesn’t go well, then violence and poverty will be just around the corner.

Who are the protectionists in Africa?

Rwanda, a country that thankfully avoided “humanitarian” military intervention by Western powers during a nasty killing spree in the 90s, is leading the charge on free trade in Africa. Of the 54 countries on the African continent, 44 have signed the agreement, but the traditional economic giants of the continent – Nigeria and South Africa – have not. Surprisingly, Botswana, an example often cited by economists as an African success story, has not signed it either.

CNBC reports on why Nigeria has so far refused to join the agreement, citing a consultant who specializes in global trade:

There is a general sentiment among (labor unions and industry bodies) that Nigeria’s export capacity in non-oil sectors isn’t sufficiently robust yet to expose itself to external competition.

Unions and “buy local” capitalists: The scourge of prosperity and progress worldwide, but also not much of a surprise.

What will be interesting to see is where this bold experiment leads. How can 44 countries with poor institutions come together to form a free trade pact? I am hoping this will lead to more states in Africa. My logic goes something like this: stronger economic ties will hasten the demise of current African states’ superficial institutions, while allowing informal institutions to flourish. Because these informal institutions are better at solving coordination problems, they’ll eventually be recognized as states. Here’s how I put it back in 2012:

A better way of looking at it, and one that I have pointed out before, is to look at Europe realize that it shares roughly the same amount  of polities as does Africa (50-ish) despite being four times smaller. I bring up the comparison with Europe because in the Old World things like ethnicity still have a strong hold on how individuals identify themselves with their various social spheres. Rather than the 50-ish number of  polities in Africa that we have today, a better way of solving Africa’s problems would be to let the polities currently in place dissolve into 400 polities. Or 500. Then, I think, Africans would know peace and prosperity.

I’d add, today, that this would only be possible if the links built by this free trade pact endure. Economic integration is vital to the dissolution of Africa’s despotic states. (h/t Barry)

Ayn Rand and International Politics

In a previous post I promised to write about Ayn Rand and her views on international politics, based on a recently published article.

I find Ayn Rand a fascinating figure in libertarian history, for a number of reasons. Her life style and ways she went about it in her life are so far distanced from me, that made me curious. Some of her philosophical ideas are great, others do not appeal to me at all. I plainly admire her for making the moral case for capitalism and individualism, which stands out in the economist-dominated libertarian tradition.

I am on the one hand annoyed by the way she fostered such cult-like circle of followers, in her own day and after her death in 1982, that led to dogmatism and intellectual isolationism, which goes against all basic academic standards I think are crucial.

On the other hand, I think the people at the Ayn Rand Institute do a great job preserving her legacy and attempting to widen her appeal. Overall, I am convinced that no matter what your take on this fascinating figure or her work is, Rand deserves to be studied in academia, because she remains influential to this day, especially in the US, and left a serious collection of writings that warrant intellectual analysis, even by people who do not consider themselves Randian.

Against this background I made a comparison between mainstream liberal theories of International Relations (IR) and the ideas on world affairs of Ayn Rand. The brief summary of the first is as follows:

  • World peace is attainable, in the belief that humans are rational enough to overcome war and conflict.
  • The nation is seen as a problematic actor in world affairs. Its room for maneuvering needs to be curtailed, including the importance of the balance of power between states, and the alleged influence of ‘war mongering’ diplomats and the so-called military-industrial complex.
  • Peace oriented foreign policies can be fostered by domestic institutional arrangements, most notably democracy (democratic peace theory).
  • In the international realm, there is an important role for intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, regimes and international law (liberal institutionalism), which aim to overcome or neutralize the effects of the logic of power politics.
  • International trade is also expected to foster peace, often in combination with the alleged pacifying influence of interest groups and public opinion of foreign policy decision-making.
  • A recent addition is the broad support for humanitarian intervention.

To keep this blog at readable length I will not go into the details of Rand’s writings, but limit myself to her main views on these ideas, which should be seen in the context of her fierce opposition to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Cold War, and her concern for America losing its super power position through internal causes, not least the loss of the individual liberty-enhancing spirit among the American people.

  • In contrast to classical liberals from Smith to Hayek, Rand did indeed think that world peace would be attainable, but only in an Objectivist world. Among rational men living according the Objectivist principles there would be a harmony of rational interests. Yet in the current world there was also abundant irrational behaviour, bad morality, and other grounds for dispute.
  • The main causes of war were not material issues, domestic interests, institutional arrangements, or the structure of the international system. Rather, war was rooted in human nature. It went back to the tribal era, when brute force was the prime rule of conduct. The (socialist) dictatorships were contemporary examples in her mind, with their lack of respect for the rights of their own citizens, and those of foreigners alike. ‘Statism needs war, a free country does not’.
  • Rand was inconsistent in her valuation of the power of public opinion. She noted that most people often do not want war. Yet the origins of war still lay with those civilians, also in non-democratic regimes, because they failed to reject the doctrine that it was right and justified to achieve goals by physical force. If people put up with a dictatorship like the Soviet Union, or decided not to flee, they were co-responsible for the deeds, and deserved the same fate as their government.
  • Rand recognized that individuals live in groups or communities, but she regarded respect for tribal roots, ethnicity, and regional languages as uncivil and, above all, irrational and a limit on individual liberty. Ethnicity was also an important cause of war. Nationalism was perhaps less abstract than Marxism, but it was at least as vicious in stirring emotions such as hatred, fear, and suspicion. Therefore rational people would altogether disregard their roots as guides in (political) life.
  • Rand had two positions on the issues of sovereignty and intervention, depending on the moral character of the nation in question. Sovereignty was a right that had to be earned, but could also be forfeited. If a nation fully respected the principle of individual rights, it’s right to sovereignty was morally secured and should be respected by other nations. However, if a state violated the rights of its citizens it would lose its sovereign rights. ‘A nation ruled by brute force is not a nation, but a horde, whether led by Atilla, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Khrushchev, or Castro.’
  • Dictatorships were outlaws and could therefore be invaded as a matter of choice for the free nations, although there was no duty to do so. The right to self-determination and sovereignty only existed for free nations, and for societies seeking to establish freedom.
  • Yet this way, anarchy loomed. Rand divided the world into three groups of countries. First, countries complying to the Objectivist principles, with full sovereign rights. Second, countries on their way to freedom, often referred to as ‘mixed economies’, or half-way houses between freedom and dictatorship. Third, countries not worth existing, such as dictatorships and tyrannies. Unfortunately, the world lacked fully free countries. The mixed economies did not have unlimited right of intervention, they could only interfere when another country seriously breached Objectivist principles, for example by establishing one party rule, enacting censorship laws, executing people for political offences without trial, or nationalizing or expropriating private property.
  • Rand acknowledged the perpetual influence of power in world politics. The character of international politics was, and always had been among states, a balance of power game.
  • The US army was under domestic, non-patriotic attack for its virtues, for being a competent and strong force. It was unwise to cut the defence budget, while -in another contrast to liberal IR thought- ‘the military-industrial complex’ was ‘a myth or worse’.
  • Statism at the international level, in the form of ‘a planetary community’ and other cosmopolitan ideas had to be rejected. The collaboration of semi-free countries with communist dictatorships in the UN was evil and stood in contrast to reason, ethics, and civilization. The UN provided the Russian camp with prestige and moral sanction, suggesting that ‘the difference between human rights and mass slaughter is just a matter of opinion’.
  • Another point of contention with the social liberals was development cooperation. Foreign aid was nothing but ‘altruism extended to the international realm’.
  • While, in contrast to social liberals, she lacked faith in international law as such, Rand did regard international treaties as firm obligations.
  • Also, Rand saw peaceful effects of laissez-faire capitalism, because it was based on the recognition of self-interest by free individuals and the non-initiation of force. Capitalism fostered a society of traders. Therefore the essence of Objectivist foreign policy had to be free trade.

To briefly sum up: Rand’s writing show that not all liberals are peace-seeking cosmopolitans, attempting to minimise the role of the nation, the balance of power, the military, and warfare in international relations. She rejected most forms of international governmental organization and other expressions of liberal institutionalism. Often her ideas lack sufficient (legal) detail, while they are also centred on America, and hence limited to the perspective of an influential super power with large military capacity. Yet her writings show that fostering liberty in international relations can be done in several ways, and that different liberals have different ideas about the route towards that goal.

Ricardo and Ringo for a free-trade Brexit


My colleague, Shruti Rajagopalan, points out that today is the 200th Anniversary of the publication of David Ricardo’s  On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. It was here that the notion of comparative advantage began confounding protectionists and nativists. Shruti offers this famous example of it in practice:

Apparently, when asked if Ringo Starr is the best drummer in the world, John Lennon quipped, “Ringo isn’t the best drummer in the world. He isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.” And while Lennon may have fancied himself a better singer, guitarist, songwriter, and drummer, than Ringo, the Beatles are still better off with Ringo at the drums.

The essence of comparative advantage is that you don’t need to possess a great talent to benefit from trade within a group, whether we are talking about individual people or nations. So long as there exists some variation in relative talents, people will be able to benefit from specialization and trade.

This message is as relevant as ever. The British Parliament has just voted to hold fresh elections. This is supposedly to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand when negotiating new terms of trade when Britain leaves the European Union. Politicians act as if trade is dangerous, always a threat to the national interest unless carefully constrained. They negotiate complex deals and regulation on market access, essentially holding their own consumers hostage, preventing them from buying foreign goods unless other countries agree to open their own markets. They fear that their domestic producers will be out-competed by superior, or cut-priced, businesses from abroad.

What comparative advantage shows is that even if that happened to be true for every single industry, domestic businesses could still specialize so as to be competitive on the world market, and improve domestic living standards at the same time. Britain could open its ports and wallets to foreign goods and services with no tariffs, even without any reciprocal deal from the EU, and yet still benefit from trade.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter if you have to be the drummer, just so long as you are in the band.