When considering the utility of tariffs, it’s useful to keep in mind that foreign trade has very little to do with economics and very much to do with foreign policy. Tariffs, within that framework, can be either good or bad, although as with any tools used in any conflict, they won’t come without cost.

Tariffs imposed solely to protect domestic industry are strictly protectionist, and they result in a less efficient economy with higher costs for domestic consumers. However they might seem justified at their outset—to give a nascent industry (not a nascent company) a chance to get established, for instance—they don’t get canceled once the need for the protection is gone. After that, protectionist tariffs just become a drag on the domestic economy. A canonical example of this is the LBJ-era chicken tax on German light pickup trucks, still in place to the point that we import no German light pickups at all.

On the other hand, tariffs to influence foreign nations to change their ways are matters of foreign policy more than they are of protection, for all that their impact is economic. Such tariffs impose the same domestic costs as protectionist tariffs, but the long-term gain, if they’re done carefully, will outweigh those short-term costs—just as is the case with any set of tools used in other sorts of conflicts.

This is the case, for instance, when a foreign nation government subsidizes its own output to gain an advantage in an otherwise free market international trade environment. It’s especially the case when those subsidies effectively close off that nation’s own domestic market to nations that would otherwise compete in the subsidizing nation’s domestic market with their own exports into it.

This is especially the case when the foreign nation is an enemy nation using its subsidies as its own foreign policy tool to dominate our economy with a view to…influencing…our own international—and domestic—actions.

That brings me to the People’s Republic of China in particular.

[The PRC] is competing with advanced economies in cars, computer chips, and complex machinery—higher-value industries that are viewed as more central to technological leadership.


Beijing…plowing money into factories, especially for semiconductors, aerospace, cars, and renewable-energy equipment, and selling the resulting surplus abroad.

That money is cheap, state-directed loans, and from those subsidies, PRC companies are glutting foreign markets.

To be sure, the PRC is rationalizing this—as are many non-PRC economists—as a need to revive its domestic economy, one that, at 5.2% GDP growth year-on-year, is outgrowing our own. It does seem that the PRC economy is slowing, but it’s slowing from a very high growth rate to a high growth rate. The outcome remains one of potential dominance of our economy, especially in national security-critical technologies and energy production. This is coupled with the PRC’s nakedly acquisitive moves in the South China Sea and to a growing extent in the East China Sea, and with its increasingly overt and threatening behavior toward the Republic of China.

That brings me to tariffs as a foreign policy tool.

We should be answering the PRC’s behavior with tariffs of our own, and we should be working to get our friends and allies to apply tariffs, also. To be sure, they will be unlikely to go along with us, but they certainly won’t if we don’t make the effort to persuade.

Such tariffs ordinarily would only be high enough to offset the subsidy advantage the PRC is looking to achieve and return those markets to free competition. However, the PRC’s overall behavior makes these tariffs important foreign policy tools rather than merely protectionist. The tariffs to be imposed should be designed to strongly influence the PRC’s overall international behavior, especially in its current, apparently shrinking, economic position.

The tariffs we impose should begin at least twice the value of the PRC subsidies, and increase—rapidly, don’t give time for the PRC to adjust—from there until the PRC’s international behavior has been suitably altered.

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