Free trade is one of the greatest forces for positive change the world has ever seen. It opens new economic frontiers for American good and services, allows America access to the best the world has to offer, and promotes peace between nations. But free trade is coming under increasing assault as some in Washington, including the Obama administration, promote restricting free trade in the name of limiting carbon dioxide emissions. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu recently advocated using tariff duties as a “weapon” to restrict free trade, and some policymakers have also advocated increasing tariffs to “protect” some politically connected U.S. businesses.
These attacks are a serious threat to free trade and, if enacted, would deepen the recession. At the start of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover made some bad economic decisions, and it appears President Obama is now considering following Hoover’s example.
In the early 1930s, in an effort to stem the economic downturn, President Hoover implemented massive deficit spending and tax hikes. This wrecked an already crippled economy. One of the worst episodes occurred when Hoover signed the infamous Smoot-Hawley tariff bill in 1930, which crippled international trade in the midst of the Depression. The Obama administration is considering a similar mistake in the form of “carbon tariffs” to prevent U.S. businesses from outsourcing to other countries after a cap-and-trade regulation makes it too economically difficult to do business in the United States. Just as in the 1930s, this Smoot-Hawley redux would punish American consumers at the worst possible time.
The Original Smoot-Hawley
Contrary to popular belief, Herbert Hoover was no fan of the free market or small government. After the stock market crashed in 1929, Hoover engaged in unprecedented peacetime deficit spending and other measures that increased the role of the federal government in the economy. Arguably, the most detrimental of his actions was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which sharply hiked taxes on thousands of imports.
Even conventional American history textbooks assign partial blame for the severity of the Depression to Hoover’s blow against international trade. In response to the legislation, European countries levied their own retaliatory tariffs and even repudiated their debts from World War I because (they claimed) the U.S. government was making it impossible for them to export goods to earn the dollars to pay back Uncle Sam’s loans.
Even without retaliation, a unilateral tariff increase makes Americans poorer. The gains to the workers in the “protected” domestic industry are more than offset by the loss to consumers who have to pay higher prices. A tariff is a tax on American consumers; the government says to its own citizens, “If you want to buy a product from a foreign producer, you have to make a side payment to the U.S. Treasury.” You don’t make a country richer by jacking up taxes on its own consumers.
International trade allows countries to specialize in their “comparative advantage,” or their areas of relative expertise. It would be catastrophic if everyone had to grow his own food, sew his own clothes, and drill his own cavities. We all benefit tremendously from the ability to specialize in occupations at which we are better than our peers, and then trade with each other.
The same principle applies to entire countries, which are simply aggregates of the individuals living in them. Because of differences in resource endowments, industrial infrastructure, weather, and the skills of the workforce, it is much more efficient for certain regions of the world to concentrate on a few key items and export them to other regions. When the government raises tax barriers, it interferes with this process and makes everyone poorer on average.
Ironically, when Herbert Hoover raised U.S. tariffs, he didn’t simply hurt American consumers, but he also crippled American exporters. Ultimately, other nations pay for their imports through their own exports. If Uncle Sam makes it more difficult for foreigners to sell their goods to Americans, then those same foreigners will not have the ability to buy goods produced by Americans. Indeed, total U.S. exports dropped from $7.2 billion in 1929 to $2.5 billion in 1932,[i] although some of this fall was no doubt due to the general price decline and the sharp drop in economic activity.
True to form, the Obama administration—under the guise of fighting climate change—is testing the waters with new restrictions on imports. Specifically, lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are considering imposing “carbon tariffs” to prevent foreign nations from gaining a competitive advantage vis-à-vis U.S. producers who are burdened with a forthcoming cap-and-trade regime. The idea is that the U.S. government would slap a huge “compensatory” tax on imports that were produced in foreign nations that do not impose carbon legislation on their manufacturers.
This is a very disturbing trend. Regardless of whether the World Trade Organization deems such “carbon tariffs” to be an acceptable infringement on trade, U.S. and European carbon tariffs will spawn another destructive trade war, just as the world suffered in the early 1930s. (If the WTO rules against the carbon tariffs, then the besieged countries will have the right to levy their own retaliatory tariffs, and if the WTO signs off on them, other countries will then find some excuse for levying tariffs to compensate themselves for the “overconsumption” of the Western nations or some such sin against the environment.)
Even if the threat from man-made climate change is as serious as some scientists claim, this fact would not overturn the centuries of work done by economic scientists. We know from both theory and history that raising trade barriers in the middle of a severe worldwide recession is a terrible policy. We also know from theory and history that government central planning does not work. When the technocrats reorder the economy, deciding which firms will survive and which prices are too high or too low, the results are disastrous. It doesn’t matter whether the justification is “fighting the Depression” (as in the 1930s) or “fighting climate change” (as in today’s discussions). Either way, central planning will wreck the economy, and it won’t even achieve its ostensible goals.
It is encouraging that the politicians are finally taking seriously the effects that cap-and-trade would have on U.S. manufacturers. The fact that lawmakers are finally admitting that the new burden would force many American firms to lay off domestic workers and relocate abroad is a positive development in the highly emotional debate about carbon dioxide regulations. But instead of abandoning their plans for cap-and-trade, the proposed solution of levying a fresh round of new taxes on American consumers who are merely trying to buy the best products at the lowest prices just adds insult to injury.
[i] Burton Folsom, Jr., New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR’s Legacy Has Damaged America (New York: Threshold Editions, 2008), p. 31.