FGF Op-Ed
THE CONFEDERATE LAWYER
March 8, 2018

The Trump Tariffs

by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

Front Royal, Virginia — President Trump has proposed significant tariffs on the importation of steel and aluminum. Should we support or oppose these measures? The answer is not simple; it lies in the details of the tariff law, rather than in a single principle about all tariffs. On balance, a significant tariff on steel and aluminum is worthy of support, despite its harmful effects.

Until the Constitution was amended in 1913 to allow a federal income tax, tariffs were the main source of support for the federal government.

Until the Constitution was amended in 1913 to allow a federal income tax, tariffs were the main source of support for the federal government. Prior to that time, some people supported tariffs for the purpose of revenue only; others supported tariffs for the purpose of protection.

John C. Calhoun’s major political battle was waged against high tariffs. Pat Buchanan and many conservatives, in contrast, support high protective tariffs. Other conservatives emphasize the harm done by tariffs and oppose all tariffs on principle.

Pat Buchanan’s current column is titled, “Why is the GOP Terrified of Tariffs”

Vindictive Tariffs. Some tariffs are clearly unjust. One of these was the 1828 Tariff of Abominations, which simply transferred wealth from the South to the North by making machinery more expensive for the planters of the South. Similarly, various tariffs (and other laws) from the 1860s until the 1930s, designed to inflict harm on the South for the benefit of the North, cannot be justified.

It is clearly in our national defense to have the elements of an “arsenal of democracy.”

Tariffs of the 1920s and 1930s. Economists generally blame the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act of 1922 and the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 for worsening the world depression of that period, because they triggered retaliation by other governments. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff is usually the main example cited to support the argument that all tariffs are bad. Although this argument may be an exaggeration, it is true that every tariff inflicts some economic harm. Because tariffs make imported products more expensive, domestic producers have less fear of foreign competition and often react by raising prices or reducing quality. For this reason, all tariffs probably do more economic harm than good. Sometimes, however, the good they do is large and concentrated on a small group, and the harm is spread in almost negligible amounts over most of the population.

Tariffs on steel, aluminum, firearms, vehicles, uranium, and similar products for the protection of domestic producers of those products help to ensure the availability of these strategic products in time of war.

Retaliatory Tariffs. Since 1947, much international commerce has been governed by multinational agreements limiting tariffs. When one country believes that another has broken a tariff agreement, it may well retaliate. Some European countries are threatening to impose their own protective tariffs on bourbon and Levi blue jeans if the United States puts tariffs on steel and aluminum. This threat illustrates the disadvantage of retaliatory tariffs. Such a tariff would do very little harm to American producers and would deprive Europeans of favorite luxuries or force them to buy them on a trip to America, diverting business from European merchants to American ones. The apparent willingness to impose retaliatory tariffs is often a deterrent to higher tariffs by another country.

Protecting the National Defense. It is clearly in our national defense to have the elements of an “arsenal of democracy.” Tariffs on steel, aluminum, firearms, vehicles, uranium, and similar products for the protection of domestic producers of those products help to ensure the availability of these strategic products in time of war. The domestic producers may raise prices. Such harm will be spread evenly over the population in small doses. Such tariffs will also protect some American jobs, but this advantage will almost certainly fall short of the economic harm. Nevertheless, the small shortfall of the advantage against the harm, spread in small doses over the economy, is worth incurring to strengthen national defense.

Americans should support the President on this issue.

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Copyright © 2018 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This article may be reprinted if credit is given to Charles G. Mills and fgfBooks.com.

Charles G. Mills, author of The Confederate Lawyer, is the Judge Advocate Emeritus (general counsel) for the New York State American Legion. As a New York lawyer, he has been arguing cases for fifty years in federal courts and in all levels of the New York courts.

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