Free but fair trade is an expression which we often hear today from President Trump; just as we hear that millionaires and billionaires must pay their fair share from Senator Sanders. When asked what percentage is fair; since these millionaire and billionaires are in the highest tax bracket and pay the most in taxes, we never seem to get an answer. All we hear is from the progressive left that they have too much and need to pay more.
Similarly, the expression free but fair trade sounds great, but the meaning of “fair” is utterly void of any substantive meaning. The idea of a 35% tariff may be fair, but it is by no means free. So the question is, how can we obtain free but fair trade?
Before we can answer this question, we must first examine the deficiencies in our current trade policies. The first thing we must realize is that we do not currently have free trade. Think about it like this. If we did have free trade why would we need complex trade agreements? The fact is we have thousands of tariffs in the United States. Just like every other country we seek to protect some industries over others. Some are for supposed national security reasons, and others are simply to protect an industry in a member of Congress’ district.
The second and most significant reason we do not have free trade is that true free trade is optimal but not politically expedient. For instance, let us use China and the United States as examples and let us say we currently do not trade with each other. Establishing trade with one another is beneficial for both countries regardless of tariffs. Since trade never existed, an unfavorable trade agreement is preferable over no trade at all. Reasons being both countries will benefit from trade. Industries may open, and some may close, but there will be a net positive for both countries. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Now instead of unfavorable trade agreements, what if we had free trade. All products coming from China into the United States and vice versa are tax-free. In this situation, you will see the greatest mutually benefit as both countries will have positive net growth. If this situation exists for years, you will see a fluid economy as some industries will be created, grow, decline, or shut down.
The problem that arises is not the creating and growth of some industries but the decline or elimination portion. If a software engineering firm which sells most of its software to China opens up in a congressional district, you will be sure to see that member of Congress at the ribbon cutting ceremony will a plethora of other politicians stating their policies fostered the creating of this software engineering firm. On the other hand, you won’t see these same politicians at the factory down the street which is packing up and moving to China. The same policies that opened up the software engineering firm eliminated your manufacturing job. What is an elected official to do? What they will try and do is give tax incentives and add tariffs to prevent the closure. If they succeed, they will once again take credit. Even thought the biggest net benefit to the economy as a whole is to allow the factory to shut down, it isn’t politically expedient.
Back in China, they will also try and protect their software engineering firms by adding tariffs and regulations on the US based company. The result of all this will be less than optimal, but long term net benefit is not politically expedient. So protectionism will inevitably begin.
Therefore, how do we create complete free and fair trade? The honest answer is you can’t; as we have demonstrated allowing complete laissez-faire trade policy will never occur because it isn’t politically expedient. Some maybe for good reasons and some for bad reasons.
To achieve the most optimal outcome would be to eliminate tariffs altogether. But how do you do that without cheating and allowing politically expedient policies? An example trade policy below might help in this endeavor.
All products, goods, materials, and services, entering the United States and its territories shall be free of tariffs. Any fees, including but not limited to docking, storage, and inspection imposed at points of entry shall be uniform at each location regardless of country of origin. Likewise, all products, goods, materials, and services produced in the United States and its territories shall be free of tariffs. Any country that imposes a tax on any of said products shall immediately, have the highest equivalent tax impose on all their goods and services at the same rate plus 10%; until eliminated. Likewise, any fees should not favor any other country over the United States and its territories. Fees must be uniform or to the benefit of the United States. If fees are to the disadvantage of the United States, those same rates shall be immediately imposed on said country plus 10% until eliminated.
This trade policy would allow greater free trade then we have ever seen. For instance, if China has a combined 20% tariff on mid-sized trucks and 25% on sedans, then since 25% is the highest tax imposed on US products then 100% of all items coming into the United States from China will have a tariff of 27.5% immediately imposed on it. This scheme would also apply to any value added tax or border adjustment tax which would disadvantage the United States over other foreign or domestic products. Therefore, I believe the consequence would be so devastating to China they wouldn’t dare put a tax on American products, and likewise, the United States would not want to engage in a trade war just to protect one industry or factory.
Let us say that we just succeeded in creating Free Trade the vague notion of Fair Trade can never be quantified or defined. For instance, if China is subsidizing its steel industry and shipping Chinese steel into the United States cheaper than the free market can produce it, is that still Fair Trade? It’s still Free Trade because no taxes or tariffs are imposed but is it fair? Some would argue that it is not fair for China to subsidize their steel industry because that puts the US steel industry at a disadvantage. The US could impose a tariff but as stated that would eliminate free trade. The only other option would be for the United States to subsidize the US steel industry or let it possibly collapse.
Some might see this as unfair; other see this as a plus benefit to the United States. American economist and Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences recipient Milton Friedman viewed this as reverse foreign aid. If China wants to tax their citizens to provide US citizens and companies with subsidized steel why not let them. In a Milton Friedman perspective, this might seem unfair to Chinese taxpayers and more than fair to US taxpayers.
Some may argue that US steel production is vital to US national security. Having enough steel is crucial to our national security, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t stockpile Chinese steel. Also, it neglects the fact that other countries like South Korea protect their steel industry by subsidizing steel in their country to prevent a monopolization by Chinese firms. The US can also buy from South Korea.
Countries may also put strict regulations on how steel is produced in their countries as well as impose those rules on foreign producers. These policies may not have a defined numerical value as a tariff but in a sense act as a protectionist trade barrier. Since there is no quantitative value to these types of regulations, having US laws automatically trigger countermeasures would be impossible.
So can we truly have Free but Fair Trade? As we have seen having Free Trade is possible, but Fair Trade is really in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately, the best interest of the United States and its continued success is by having a free trade policy as spelled out in this article as well as limiting regulations and limiting government interference in the economy. Nothing can be put in place to be completely fair and balanced, but the most reasonable thing to do for the overall benefit of America and Americans is to maximize laissez-faire economic policies void of politically expedient measures.