Who's “Protected” by Tariffs?
The tariff has been described as a means of benefiting the producer at the expense of the consumer. In a sense this is correct. Those who favor it think only of the interests of the producers immediately benefited by the particular duties involved. They forget the interests of the consumers who are immediately injured by being forced to pay these duties. But it is wrong to think of the tariff issue as if it represented a conflict between the interests of producers as a unit against those of consumers as a unit. It is true that the tariff hurts all consumers as such. It is not true that it benefits all producers as such. On the contrary, as we have just seen, it helps the protected producers at the expense of all other American producers, and particularly of those who have a comparatively large potential export market.
We can perhaps make this last point clearer by an exaggerated example. Suppose we make our tariff wall so high that it becomes absolutely prohibitive, and no imports come in from the outside world at all. Suppose, as a result of this, that the price of sweaters in America goes up only $5. Then American consumers, because they have to pay $5 more for a sweater, will spend on the average five cents less in each of a hundred other American industries. (The figures are chosen merely to illustrate a principle: there will, of course, be no such symmetrical distribution of the loss; moreover, the sweater industry itself will doubtless be hurt because of protection of still otherindustries. But these complications may be put aside for the moment.)
Now because foreign industries will find their market in Americatotally cut off, they will get no dollar exchange, and therefore they will be unable to buy any American goods at all. As a result of this, American industries will suffer in direct proportion to the percentage of their sales previously made abroad. Those that will be most injured, in the first instance, will be such industries as raw cotton producers, copper producers, makers of sewing machines, agricultural machinery, typewriters, commercial airplanes, and so on.
A higher tariff wall, which, however, is not prohibitive, will produce the same kind of results as this, but merely to a smaller degree.
The effect of a tariff, therefore, is to change the structure of American production. It changes the number of occupations, the kind of occupations, and the relative size of one industry as compared with another. It makes the industries in which we are comparatively inefficient larger, and the industries in which we are comparatively efficient smaller. Its net effect, therefore, is to reduce American efficiency, as well as to reduce efficiency in the countries with which we would otherwise have traded more largely.
In the long run, notwithstanding the mountains of argument pro and con, a tariff is irrelevant to the question of employment. (True, suddenchanges in the tariff, either upward or downward, can create temporary unemployment, as they force corresponding changes in the structure of production. Such sudden changes can even cause a depression.) But a tariff is not irrelevant to the question of wages. In the long run it always reduces real wages, because it reduces efficiency, production and wealth.
Thus all the chief tariff fallacies stem from the central fallacy with which this book is concerned. They are the result of looking only at the immediate effects of a single tariff rate on one group of producers, and forgetting the long-run effects both on consumers as a whole and on all other producers.
(I hear some reader asking: “Why not solve this by giving tariff protection to all producers?” But the fallacy here is that this cannot help producers uniformly, and cannot help at all domestic producers who already “outsell” foreign producers: these efficient producers must necessarily suffer from the diversion of purchasing power brought about by the tariff.)