Questions are a favorite pastime of mine. Questioning what we are told is a lovely way to steer clear of dogma. Especially today, there are many instances of disinformation, misinformation, and full out lies that assault truth. But the truth will indeed set us free.
Lately I have been looking into and questioning tariffs. As you know it’s all in the news today. This is a subject on which I had not done a lot of in-depth research, so my questions were quite elementary. Leaning toward liberty as I usually do, trusting that humans are smart and basically good at heart, I would think tariffs, like regulations, are not very productive. I believe that people, like our bodies, are very good at self-regulating if left alone to their own devices. I also thought tariffs were a thing of the past, which is why there is such an uproar and acid debate about new tariffs being levied. Boy was I wrong – tariffs are everywhere!
As I began to find out information about tariffs I was very surprised to learn it is actually a complicated and complex subject. To start, I discovered that America is not so free trade-ish as one might think. A 2010 article from Business Insider states, “But anyone who thinks America is a perfect practitioner of free trade needs to wake up. The International Trade Commission lists over 12,000 specific tariffs on imports to America. Hundreds of agricultural, textile, and manufacturing items are highly protected. So are obscure items like live foxes” (See: https://www.businessinsider.com/americas-biggest-tariffs-2010-9).
I was curious, so I looked at the list from the United States International Trade Commission mentioned above. Yes indeed, there were over 12,000 rows in the Excel spreadsheet of items! Some were so specific—beyond live foxes—as to be almost laughable; but I am sure there must be good reason for these individual trade agreements.
As I said, I naively assumed tariffs were mostly a thing of the past – the pandemonium about new tariffs made it seem that this whole issue is ground breaking by bringing back tariffs. But tariffs abound, today and yesterday, worldwide. Here is another interesting article with lots of information to gleam from if one wants to do the work (See: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/22/u-s-tariffs-are-among-the-lowest-in-the-world-and-in-the-nations-history/). Here is a chart from the article that shows some of the U. S. relationships regarding trade tariffs.
There is, I learned, a “perennial drama” that has been in existence for a long time. In the early 1930s congress decided to not even try to keep track of all the trade/tariff details and it “delegated to the president authority to negotiate trade deals with other countries and, under certain circumstances, raise or lower import duties”. It seems I am not alone, and even congress was overwhelmed by the complexity of trade tariffs. Interestingly, they haven’t taken back their earlier authority. I suppose it’s easier to sit back and blame someone else rather than take responsibility for decisions.
What this and further research did for me was to support my thinking that sound bites from either side of the political divide is never a good base for decision making. And on this matter in particular, I would like not to form an opinion until I understand a lot more than I do now. As I have stated elsewhere, free trade needs no hundred or thousand page documents. Free trade agreements need but one sentence – “we, as sovereign nations agree to trade freely without any restrictions whatsoever.”
Of course, we all know none of us have anything remotely close to being able to trade freely with others as individuals. To trade in our culture, we must pay tax on the trade, register our trade with government offices, pay licenses to use our traded property, et cetera, besides not being able to trade many goods we may actually desire such as raw milk. “Free trade” is a misnomer—another instance of how words are used to confuse.
Previously I had decided to sit on the sidelines of a similar issue because I learned years ago that the 1800s North had imposed significantly high tariffs on the South before the “Civil War”. Hence the South’s desire to constitutionally secede. The South had its back against the wall as the North imposed tariff taxes to pay for its lack of productivity and growing government. The South was being exploited for all their riches of production of goods. Back then I discovered that many call the “Civil War” instead “The War for Southern Independence” – that name gives a very different context to the war from the onset. The 1861 Morrill Tariff is still a debated piece of history as to its consequences. For those who want a deeper look into the earlier tariffs see here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1879417.pdf.
To top it all off tariffs are only one aspect of barriers to real, honest-to-goodness, “free” trade. Investopedia states, “Nor are tariffs the only variety of trade barrier: others include exchange controls, subsidies, fair trade laws, local-content requirements and quotas on imports and exports” (See: https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/040115/which-countries-have-highest-tariffs.asp).
Further we have “Buy American” rules that complicate the picture even more. “Other non-tariff barriers include the “Buy American” rules that favour American suppliers for public procurement, and complex labelling requirements. Not all barriers have protectionist intent; other countries have plenty of them, too. Their effects are tricky to quantify, but trade geeks think they crimp commerce among rich countries more than tariffs do (See: https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2018/06/14/how-open-is-america). What to do with all of this? Well . . .
Sometimes questions lead to more questions which lead to more questions which lead to . . the fact that some issues are very complex and must really be studied rather extensively before forming a hard and fast opinion. Otherwise we have dogma, ignore-ance (the act of ignoring knowable information and knowledge), and the kind of populace about which our founders warned us: constitutional democracy requires a highly literate society lest it fall into tyranny.
We shall see. . .