– November 8, 2019
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The Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773 was a powerful protest by a freedom-loving group called the Sons of Liberty against the British government’s decision to impose a tax—a tariff—on tea imported from China to the Colonies. The protestors opposed an arbitrary government action, which they saw as an infringement on their rights as Englishmen.

We know the story. England responded with violence, and the Revolutionary War was initiated. Later, after a long and costly struggle, a new nation was formed, one dedicated to the notion that ordinary people had the right to pursue happiness. Even, one might say, if that means buying a consumer good from China without paying an arbitrarily imposed tariff.

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence reminds us:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Yes, these beautiful words are well-known, but do we understand the full implication?

Thomas Jefferson, the Enlightenment thinker who penned them, saw this new nation as an experiment in liberty, one where free people—endowed by their creator with rights—could pursue happiness. And how might they go about doing so? By cooperating and engaging in mutually beneficial exchange in the world’s marketplace. These free people would not be inhibited by government, but assisted by it in their happiness pursuits.

Mr. Jefferson explains:

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Somehow, much of this seems to be forgotten. A November 6 Wall Street Journal story tells us that just in the month of September, the United States “collected a record $7 billion in import tariffs … as new duties kicked in on apparel, tools, electronics and other consumer goods from China.” Tea is not mentioned.

Seen through the lens of Enlightenment thinking as reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the $7 billion tariff revenues are a tax on the right of ordinary Americans to pursue happiness. To the extent that the current tariffs represent undebated actions taken by the executive branch of government—no taxation without representation—the tariffs are a tax on freedom and should therefore not be allowed to stand.

Yes, all this seems to be forgotten. Instead of talking about happiness, we hear discussions of another country’s arbitrary regulatory policies, which some dislike. So now, we have imposed freedom taxes on timber from Canada, steel and aluminum from France and Germany, and yes, on consumer goods and more from China.

Freedom goes down when tariff revenues go up. It’s high time we revisited the Declaration of Independence and renewed our commitment to freedom.

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Bruce Yandle

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Bruce Yandle is a distinguished adjunct fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and dean emeritus of the Clemson University College of Business and Behavioral Science.

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