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Economics

25 Reasons Why Protectionism Is Taken Seriously When It's Actually a Form of Economic Suicide

Mark J. Perry

It’s a scientifically and mathematically provable fact that all tariffs, at any time and in any country, will harm economic growth, eliminate net jobs, destroy prosperity, and lower the standard of living of the protectionist country because tariffs are guaranteed by the ironclad laws of economics to generate costs to consumers that outweigh the benefits to producers, i.e. tariffs will always impose deadweight losses on the protectionist country (see diagram below, and “An economic analysis of protectionism clearly shows that Trump’s tariffs would make us poorer, not greater“). That is, the reality that tariffs always inflict great economic damage and leave society worse off is not a debatable outcome, rather it’s a provable fact, like the law of gravity.

Update: There is plenty of empirical evidence showing that protectionism and tariffs always generate costs to consumers that are far in excess of the benefits to producers (i.e. deadweight costs) see CD posts herehere and here.

The Justification

So why is protectionism being taken so seriously, and given so much credibility, when it’s actually a job-destroying, prosperity-destroying form of economic suicide and an economic death wish? 

Here are my top 25 reasons that explain why protectionism is taken so seriously, despite the fact that it’s guaranteed to impoverish America and destroy jobs, not make us “great again”:

  1. The false belief that trade is a zero-sum game (win-lose), when in fact it’s win-win.
  2. The costs of protectionism to consumers are mostly hidden.
  3. The benefits of protectionism to producers are easily identifiable and visible.
  4. The jobs saved by protectionism are observable and visible.
  5. The jobs lost from protectionism are not easily observable or visible.
  6. The benefits of protectionism to individual producers are very high (e.g. $300,000 annual increase in revenues per sugar farm from trade barriers for foreign sugar).
  7. The costs of protectionism to individual consumers is very low (e.g. $5-10 per year in higher sugar prices per person due to sugar tariffs), although the costs in the aggregate of protectionism are very high.
  8. The costs of protectionism to consumers are delayed over many years.
  9. The benefits of protectionism to producers are immediate.
  10. Producers seeking the benefits of protectionism are concentrated and well-organized.
  11. Consumers paying the costs of protectionism are dispersed and disorganized.
  12. There is a huge political payoff to politicians from protectionism in the form of votes, political support, and financial contributions from protected domestic firms and industries.
  13. There is a huge political cost to politicians who attempt to remove or lower trade barriers in the form of lost votes, support and financial contributions from previously protected domestic producers.
  14. The pathological, but false obsession that exports are good.
  15. The pathological, but false obsession that imports are bad.
  16. The fact that most Americans work for a company that produces a single product or group of similar products (e.g. cars, steel, textiles, appliances) and are therefore favorably disposed to supporting protectionist trade policies that benefit their employer and industry.
  17. The fact that American consumers purchase hundreds, if not thousands of individual products, goods and services, and are therefore unlikely to be fully aware of the negative effects of protectionism or be motivated to fight protectionism.
  18. Many Americans think that exporting US products is patriotic.
  19. Many Americans think that importing foreign products is unpatriotic.
  20. The false belief that trade deficits are a sign of economic weakness.
  21. The false belief that trade surpluses are a sign of economic strength.
  22. The fact that protectionism is guaranteed to create economic deadweight losses is not easily understood, nor are those losses easily observable or measurable.
  23. The general lack of economic literacy among the general public.
  24. The general lack of economic literacy among politicians, or their intentional disregard for the economics of protectionism in favor of enacting public policies that help them get re-elected.
  25. The failure to recognize that most imports are inputs purchased by American firms, which allow them to be as competitive as possible when selling their outputs in global markets.

Bottom Line

Taken together, the 25 reasons above help us understand the popularity of protectionism, despite the fact that it’s guaranteed to inflict great economic harm. Protectionism is popular primarily for political reasonsnot economic reasons. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, the first lesson of international economics is that free trade makes us better off and protectionism makes us worse off.

The first lesson of politics when it comes to international trade is to ignore the first lesson of international economics, and impose protectionist trade policies when they further the political interests of short-sighted elected officials. When politicians can count on the economic illiteracy of the general public and their blind patriotism to “Buy American,” the political payoffs from protectionism are too tempting to ignore despite the reality that it’s a form of economic suicide.

And because the benefits of tariffs to producers (and jobs created or saved) are concentrated, immediate and visible, while the costs to consumers (and jobs lost) are diffused, delayed and invisibleit’s pretty easy to understand why protectionism is popular, even though the economic costs far outweigh the economic benefits (i.e. deadweight losses result) and it’s therefore ultimately a form of self-inflicted economic poison.

Reprinted from American Enterprise Institute.

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