Acton Institute Powerblog

The immorality of tariffs

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The benefits of free trade are vast, and enjoyed throughout the world.  The alternative — trade restricted by protective tariffs and quotas — concentrates benefits to a protected few who profit due to less competition from foreign competitors.

The morality of free trade is clear. Individuals can choose what they buy from where, linking the world through a network of exchange. Integration through trade and exchange is a major factor lifting people out of poverty. The more and freer the trade, the better for human flourishing. Despite this, there is a growing protectionist movement in the United States political landscape.

In Abraham Kuyper’s book Antirevolutionaire Staatkunde (or Anti-Revolutionary Politics), he discusses his political support of tariff increases in the Netherlands. One of Kuyper’s arguments in defense of tariffs is a moral argument, which stems from concerns over unemployment. He writes:

Excessive enthusiasm for Free Trade and for free movement of population can deprive men of work who would otherwise have it in abundance. Free Trade can have as a consequence that many items are fabricated abroad so that there is no work to be done here. This can be observed in its simplest form in the case of lumber. If unsawed logs are imported, then the wages of sawing can be earned here. If, however, lumber arrives sawed, then the wages for sawing are lost here.

Frederick Nymeyer, in a 1956 article titled “Abraham Kuyper’s Unscriptural And Unsound Ideas On Tariff Protection”, takes Kuyper to task for what he sees as grievous moral and economic errors in his defense of tariffs.

Kuyper’s defense of protectionism is rooted in concern for workers, like Dutch sawmill workers, who might be unemployed due to imports of already sawed lumber. These workers, and the sawmill owners, capture the concentrated benefits of restricted trade on lumber. The costs of such a restriction, however, are spread across all the consumers of lumber throughout the Netherlands. They pay in higher prices. As Nymeyer writes:

From this viewpoint there was no gain to be obtained by Dutch sawmill employees except at the expense of other Dutchmen, namely the consumers. What virtuous morality is there in helping one man at the expense of another? Is this good Calvinist brotherly love? Is this the Christian religion? Is this Anti Revolutionary statesmanship? [emphasis added]

Dutch citizens are not the only ones harmed by this protectionist policy designed to benefit domestic sawmill workers. Foreign sawmill workers are harmed in the same way Kuyper fears for the Dutch. With fewer markets for their products, they may also end up unemployed. Nymeyer argues that Kuyper rejects what he calls “the law of brotherly love” in advocating for economic programs that unfairly advantage Dutch over foreign sawmill workers.

In plain language, Kuyper has scales for morality with two sets of weights; one set of weights for Dutchmen; another set of weights for Swedes (foreigners). Somewhere in Scripture there is a very unfavorable comment on the morality of different sets of weights.

Nymeyer rejects the notion that Christians are more obligated to their brothers and sisters that happen to share the same nation as them than those that do not. Citing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he proclaims “ALL men are our neighbors”. 

Tariffs are immoral because they unfairly benefit one group of people over another through the coercion of the state. They erode individual choice, while simultaneously reinforcing nationalist ideas. The morality (or lack thereof) of tariffs remains an important consideration even today, given today’s political rhetoric condemning trade and calling for renewed protectionism and restricted trade. Christians should reject protectionist tariffs not only because they are economically unsound, but also because of their immorality and incompatibility with Christianity.

Tyler Groenendal

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