The recent restrictions the Trump administration has placed on American consumers of foreign steel and various Chinese products make me think about all of the many state-imposed restrictions on our freedom and choices that we have come to tolerate over the years.
I could go on and on about how the administration’s motives and goals for the current trade wars are idiotic. When it comes to tariffs, differences among governments in just how much they restrict their citizens' freedom to trade are hardly a good reason to wage a trade war.
According to the World Bank, the average global tariff is down to just 2.9 percent. In other words, when it comes to tariffs, the greatest gains from free trade have likely already been achieved. Fighting regulatory red tape and customs delays would do much more to knock down today's relevant trade barriers, and to ease friction between economies around the world, than would skirmishes over further tariff reductions.
No Government Restrictions
And as many others have rightly argued, the administration's national-security justification for its trade restrictions is also bogus. In short, there are no grounds for the administration to punitively tax American consumers with tariffs in the name of protecting us from any real or alleged behaviors by foreign governments.
But truth be told, from a libertarian point of view, this anti-tariff argument actually misses the core point. The bigger and more important issue is that even if European governments are nothing but a bunch of protectionists, we shouldn't tolerate our own government’s restricting our consumption of Fiat Fullback pickup trucks, Chinese steel, Caribbean sugar, or any other good or service. Period. No ifs. No ands. No buts. No exceptions.
We should strongly reject these restrictions. And yet they are everywhere. Consider how the Food and Drug Administration, in the name of safety at any cost, quashed the genomics company 23andMe by ordering it to stop marketing its inexpensive, at-home genetic-testing kits. The company’s crime? It didn’t first obtain permission from regulators before selling its product to American consumers who were interested in learning more about their own personal genetic information.
The FDA also decides what types of cheese we can and cannot eat. With some annoying regularity, my local cheese supplier tells me that this cheese or that cheese will be banned from the United States soon. We are not talking crazy Corsican cheeses with live worms inside, the kind they make where my grandmother was born and raised. Nope, just regular cheeses that most Americans' European ancestors have been consuming for centuries and that are still widely and without problems consumed in Europe.
While cheese consumption may strike you as relatively unimportant, this is the same FDA that tells patients whose diseases will certainly kill them that they can’t try experimental drugs that might also kill them but might also save their lives. Many of these same patients, along with millions of others suffering from chronic pain, live in states where they can’t use cannabis to ease their suffering. And everywhere in the country, American adults' own government officiously threatens to lock them in cages if they use drugs government officials declare to be illegal.
There are so many other areas where you have to ask the government for permission to do things that, come to think of it, you should be able to do if you please. Think about it. Businesses are subjected to hundreds of labor requirements to start a business, to run a business, and to employ people. Even if you aren’t a small company, you must acquire a license (i.e., ask for permission from the state) to run a business from your home.
In some cities, like Arlington, Virginia, where I live, you have to ask for permission to rent your home through AirBnB. This is an accessory-homestay rental license you must get on top of any other business licenses you need to get in order to work from your home. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to live in a city that doesn’t try to stop you entirely from using the house you bought and paid for with your own money as you see fit.
And heaven forbid you want to become a hair braider, an interior decorator, a dental hygienist, or a horse masseuse! In some states, you’ll be required to undergo expensive and time-consuming training and certification from the state. Occupational licensing, certificate-of-need legislation, and all other employment barriers are the visible expressions of the fact that we Americans have cravenly come to accept that we must ask for permission to be employed or make a living as we each choose.
In his book Permissionless Innovation, my colleague Adam Thierer argues that creators of new technology shouldn't have to seek the blessing of skeptical, out-of-touch regulators before they can develop and offer their innovations to consumers. In fact, it’s because some innovators have had the nerve to start a business without asking for permission that we all benefit now from services like Uber and Lyft, Homejoy, grocery-delivery services like Instacart, last-minute errand-running services like TaskRabbit, restaurant-quality meal-delivery services like SpoonRocket, and more.
I’m glad for these regulation violators who dared to dream that their ideas could find willing consumers to make them rich. Yet I worry that as consumers, taxpayers, businesspeople, and citizens we have lost the notion that just as innovators shouldn't have to ask for permission from the government before they can bring new products to consumers, people who want to try out new arrangements for living their lives or making their livings shouldn't have to ask for such permission either.
I understand why people often fear freedom or the consequences of breaking the rules, and thus acquiesce to government restrictions on their freedoms. But I fear that we have gone too far in this timid and cowardly compliance. So long as everyone respects everyone else's rights, we should have permissionless consumption (foreign and domestic), permissionless employment, permissionless entertainment, and permissionless everything and anything that's peaceful.
A right for consumers to try new things or to buy what they really want should be the default presumption. That shift would effectively knock down the barriers to progress erected by officious governments and self-serving special interests.