There are a lot of Republicans these days embracing the anti-trade rhetoric of Donald Trump and, simultaneously, screaming about the ineffectiveness and unfairness of wealth redistribution through the welfare state. Interestingly enough, these two positions are equivalent to one another. You cannot be for trade protection (such as tariffs) and against wealth redistribution; they are fundamentally the same thing. Let me illustrate how.
Wealth redistribution operates under the principal that government takes (forcibly, mind you) money from Susan and gives it to Tom. Susan is guilty of no crime besides being in an electoral minority, but nevertheless she incurs the wrath of Tom’s jealousy and greed of her accomplishments and higher earnings. Tom’s greedy vengeance is carried out by elected officials who are able to send men with guns to Susan’s house (if she doesn’t pay) to do what would be illegal for Tom to do himself, which is to steal from Susan.
Now, this redistribution is all based on the premise that Tom should be allowed to do as he wishes (i.e. work less hours, invest less effort in his own skill set, and engage in more recreation) and still be provided with all the basic needs that life requires (including many that life does not require like cell phones, etc). In effect, the welfare state makes inefficiency a right, one that can be subsidized. Productive capability is discounted in favor of lifestyle choice.
This brings us now to trade protection and why the two things are indifferent. Let us imagine that Susan is now a consumer and Tom is a worker at an auto plant. We are told that tariff’s on foreign auto makers will “help” our economy (incidentally, zero of this claim is backed up by well-established economic principals or any evidence) so that Tom can keep his job and manufacturing will not be “shipped” overseas. Instead our government will place a 10% tariff on those evil foreign automakers that, for some reason or another, can supply us vehicles at a fraction of the price of Tom’s employer. If the foreign car is $20,000 and Tom’s car is $22,000 before the tariff, this new 10% tax (tariffs are taxes on consumers, by the way) will make them essentially the same price[i].
So, now Susan (and everyone else) must pay $2,000 more per vehicle for Tom to remain employed (not to mention increased sales taxes, etc.) in his current occupation. If Susan chooses to purchase the foreign car, the government will profit after placing no value into the production of said vehicle much like the mobster running a protection racket. If Susan chooses to purchase the car Tom makes, she will pay a greater price to subsidize Tom’s relative inefficiency; because, if Tom were as efficient as the competition, his autos would be priced accordingly. Tom gets to keep his job that he is not as good at as the competitor is while everyone that purchases a car pays more to ensure this. The government has then taken money from every consumer (a tax) and given it to Tom to subsidize his inefficiency (we could just as easily call this welfare…see paragraph 3, sentence 2).
If 50,000 people buy a car in a given year, the result is $100M that cannot be spent elsewhere or saved for the future (either choice is an investment in economic growth). Incidentally, this most adversely affects those families making relatively less money—that is right, the much maligned middle class and poor; rich people are not concerned with trivial little tariffs and will buy the foreign car anyway if they want to.
If you think (rightly) that a redistributive tax hurts the economy by reducing consumption, which in turns reduces the amount of production required, and thus lowers employment you cannot simultaneously think a tariff—which accomplishes the same thing at an even greater cost—will not hurt the economy. Well, you can…but it is no less fantasy than unicorns or Bigfoot. Holding this belief would have led the government to ban the car to protect the wagon builder or ban the light bulb to protect the candle maker. Mass production of food through technological advances would have been outlawed so we could maintain the same volume of farmers, plow makers, and ox breeders (a decision which would have increased the likelihood of starvation due to poor conditions, a concern we no longer carry as humans in the U.S.).
We must resist the urge to fall into emotional, unsupported arguments—such as those being made by Donald Trump—that tariffs will help the American worker and engaging in trade is bad. I know what you may be thinking now: “we want trade, but fair trade.” Did I get that right? That is hogwash, too. In no way, does us buying goods at a cheaper price—enabling us to consume more and thus produce a wider array of products ourselves—ever, never , never, ever hurt us. If this principle is true, why not only buy things from within your town, or county, or state and really help your local economy boom? If you think unemployed people in your town just need a chance, quit buying things from the mall, Walmart, or Amazon. The reason you do not do this is that you know deep down it is malarkey. Politicians like Trump can use nationalistic hubris to motivate an adverse response that goes against your own best interest. History has known another politician who was effectively able to do this…Adolf Hitler.