The hoopla and hysteria about balance of trade deficits, and that somehow “others” are taking advantage of us because we buy more from them than they buy from us, in fact, is the result of an analytical myopia of failing to “follow the money” through all the different forms and channels that import and export spending can take, both for an individual or the country as a whole. Once you do, you realize that the balance of trade “problem” is all an illusion.
Economic nationalism, characterized by restriction on trade and migration toward the goal of political control, has a different sales pitch and cultural feel from the central planning of generations past. But it is no less an attack on free enterprise, industrial rivalry, and consumer control of production. Ultimately it is just another way to undermine property rights, freedom, and the limits on the power of the state.
It’s the 295th birthday of Adam Smith, champion of trade and the philosophical mastermind who explained the end of the old world and the beginning of the new. And yet, on this day, after so many centuries of intellectual work to promote free trade, a trade war is upon us.
We’ve got a genuine problem, a new crop of world leaders who are willing to sacrifice economic rationality, international cooperation, and world peace to feed their nationalistic political ambitions via the brute force of protectionism. Trump is leading the way.
The company ZTE (Zhongxing Telecommunications Equipment) in Shanghai had employed as many 75,000, and does business in 160 nations, while relying heavily on importing American component parts and manufacturing cellphones and other digital equipment. The US Commerce Department came down hard on the company for dealings with North Korea and Iran. It fined the company $1.2 billion and banned American exports to the company for fully seven years. It was all part of the “get tough” policy that Trump has been promoting his entire career.
The legal uncertainties surrounding trade with China have sent people looking for historical precedent for this mess. One jumps out: the targeted trade embargo that the US imposed against Britain in 1807. Let’s look at the parallels and lessons.
The results of this war are as follows. US consumers get to pay more for imports from China. American companies lose markets as Chinese consumers and importers turn to other countries to provide wines, pork, and fruit. And this is only round one. The financial markets have suffered a terrible quarter one, just as all this interventionist rhetoric picked up steam. We are doing ourselves no favors here. This is not how a nation becomes great again.
In a political sense, Trump might be onto something, temporarily, in the most cynical way. It is very easy for the hoi polloi to think in terms of national collectives. It’s us vs them, our guys vs. their guys. The trouble is that the world is no longer organized primarily along these nationalistic lines. We all depend on the productivity of each other and therefore on trade with each other, regardless of the nation states that trap us in their borders. The other main problem with trade war: it is a ruse to distract citizens from their real oppressor which is their own government.
It’s been a beautiful thing to observe the wonderful effects of the tax cuts and deregulation of the last year. The tariffs take us off this clear path to the goal. The only question remains: is this a cul-de-sac or a u-turn? My own hope is that the political posturing is over in this one sector and we can move forward again with progress toward a world of peace, prosperity, and free trade, and that arbitrary rule will not permanently derail the rule of law in international economic relations.
And this isn’t only about the price of beer (you won’t say “dilly dilly” to $2 Bud Lights). It is about cars, computers, homes, offices, fixtures, and countless other items you use every day. The costs could very easily take away all the benefits accrued from income and corporate tax cuts. It also makes a joke of the Trump administration’s position against red tape and regulation. If my company can’t shop around for the best deal for my customers but instead must face a terrible trade bureaucracy to decline or permission in my every choice, we don’t have free enterprise.
Corporations and many households rightfully celebrated when the Trump administration led the way in cutting their taxes. Now, the administration is in effect clawing at least a little of that tax cut back in the name of increasing the profitability of two ailing American industries.
Economists tend to minimize those people who are hurt in the short run by free trade, but they're hard to ignore as a political voting bloc.