Arbor Day Has Free-Market Roots

Even the holiday's founder knew that lumber tariffs are harmful.

This week, the Trump administration has announced that new tariffs will be imposed on imports of Canadian lumber. Ironically, President Trump announced this policy decision just a few short days before this year’s recognition of Arbor Day on April 28. What Trump has perhaps failed to realize is that, in 1872, Arbor Day was founded by J. Sterling Morton, partly out of his love for trees, but also because of his devotion to anti-protectionist free trade.

Today of all days, we should remember that Morton, the founder of Arbor Day, specifically fought to repeal a tariff on imports of Canadian lumber.

A Rebel and a Tree Lover

Currently, the holiday, coordinated by the Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City, Nebraska, promotes greenery and planting in addition to celebrating the many benefits that trees contribute to the world.

Government, under the disguise of protecting home industry, is actually paying a bounty for the speedy destruction of US forests.

Such was also Morton’s mission after he settled in Nebraska City in 1854 as a recently married 22-year-old. This was prairie country, sorely in need of more trees for windbreaks and esthetic purposes. He planted furiously. Then, a 40-year-old political and economic theorist, when Morton first started Arbor Day he viewed it as part of a larger project.

Morton, who came to Nebraska from a Michigan adolescence, was known for his strong will and challenges to authority. A troublemaker, he was even expelled from the University of Michigan. He then landed a job as a reporter at the Detroit Free Press, where he found an outlet for his range of vocabulary and acerbic phraseology. The editorship of the Nebraska City newspaper became his platform for influence throughout the territory. He also plunged into politics, in the Democrat minority party.

In that era, the Democrats advocated for limited government and free markets, the Republicans for activist government and economic interventionism. Morton served briefly in the territorial House of Representatives but was consistently defeated in later bids for higher office. Nationally, he achieved stature as an officer of the American Free Trade League and the National Sound Money League.

Accordingly, the tariff on Canadian lumber irked him as hostile to consumers and as showing favoritism for special interests. He explained his position in an 1883 letter (quoted in Burton W. Folsom, Jr., No More Free Markets or Free Beer, 21):

[U]nder a tariff for protection the United States is paying a bounty of at least two dollars a thousand feet on lumber made from our forests. In other words, a tax is imposed on imported lumber of two dollars a thousand feet, not to get a revenue into the public treasury, but to give an artificial value to home-made lumber, and to shut out competition from Canadian forests.

In fact, government, under the disguise of a tariff for protecting home industry, is actually paying a bounty for the speedy destruction of the forests of the United States. Constant tree planting is, therefore, the price of forests in the future as much as “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

A Model for Today

Morton later got the opportunity to apply his principles on a national scale. He became Secretary of Agriculture during the second term of President Grover Cleveland from 1893 to 1897. Cleveland’s legacy is that he vetoed hundreds of bills passed by Congress that granted special privileges to some at the expense of others.

"The power to tax was never vested in a Government for the purpose of building up one class at the expense of other classes.”

Morton managed the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the same vein, even at the expense of farmers in his home state. He canceled a program that targeted Nebraska sugar-beet growers for specific help, explaining that “those who raise corn should not be taxed to encourage those who desire to raise beets. The power to tax was never vested in a Government for the purpose of building up one class at the expense of other classes.”

Under Morton, the department stopped providing free seed to farmers, cut its travel expenditures, and eliminated patronage jobs. Each year he returned a large amount of the departmental budget back to the U.S. Treasury, unspent.

Morton returned home to Nebraska City after the 1896 election and, from 1898 until his death in 1902, published The Conservative, a monthly journal of political opinion that attacked the swelling tide of so-called Progressivism that was a repudiation of his limited-government principles. He opposed protective tariffs to the end.

President Trump might well spend Arbor Day studying its founder’s argumentation that a tariff on Canadian lumber is detrimental to U.S. interests.

So today, plant trees. Build up the supply. Break the harm-creating power of the protectionists.

Think Arbor Day. Think free trade.

Further Reading

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