The Real Scandal of ‘Tariff Suspensions’

Two weeks ago (yes, I know, an eternity in blog time, but I’ll explain in a moment), the Washington Post published a gotcha front-page expose on a long-established if little noted congressional practice of suspending miscellaneous tariff duties. The article, headlined “A Quiet Break for Corporations” (September 20, 2006), supposedly uncovered yet another pork-barrel scandal. The real scandal of the story, however, is not that U.S.-based producers seek relief from damaging tariffs, but that those tariffs exist in the first place.

For years, Congress has voted regularly on miscellaneous tariff bills that suspend a hodgepodge of duties on obscure products that often are not even made by companies in the United States. In those cases, the tariffs don’t even perform the dubious duty of “protecting” domestic producers.  They only make it more expensive if not impossible for consumers and producers to import certain products.

The Post article emphasized the potential revenue lost to the government by suspension of the duties, while downplaying the costs to consumers and importing producers from the artificially higher prices imposed by the tariffs. Economics 101 teaches that with almost any tariff, the damage to the economy from higher prices and less efficient production will outweigh the duties collected by the government.

The story implied a scandal in the fact that some American companies would actually be hurt by suspension of tariffs on their foreign competition. But since when is it the duty of the government to protect certain producers against their competition? Should the same government that harasses U.S. companies with anti-trust laws be shielding other U.S. companies from the same competitive forces that anti-trust laws supposedly promote? If Americans can buy dog collars more cheaply from a foreign producer, the federal government should keep its nose out of the deal.

One example in the story involves the proposed suspension of duties on basketballs and volleyballs imported by the sporting-goods company Spalding. Again, the real scandal is why the government imposes any duties at all on such goods. The federal government should not be raising revenue with a special “basketball tax,” in the process making basketballs more expensive for American kids while hurting the sales of an American company.

Supposedly adding to the scandal is that fact that many of the “beneficiaries” of the suspended duties would be foreign-owned affiliates located in the United States, especially German and Swiss chemical companies. That fact does not make the special duties any less damaging to the U.S. economy. Foreign-owned affiliates in the United States employ nearly six million Americans (one out of eight manufacturing workers), pay domestic taxes, and serve American customers.

The story tried to clinch the scandal thesis by citing campaign donations and lobbying expenses by the companies seeking removal of the damaging tariffs. Again, the real scandal is not that these companies are trying to change laws that damage them, but that they need to seek specific relief in the first place.

Import duties invite corruption by giving the government power over a range of otherwise innocent and private transactions. A policy of free trade, without arbitrary duties aimed at punishing foreign producers and protecting domestic ones, would eliminate any need to lobby the government over the imposition or suspension of duties. The latest Economic Freedom of the World  report shows that nations with relatively free and open economies are generally less corrupt than those with closed and government-dominated economies. (Check out the chart on page 26.)

By repealing targeted tariffs that damage our economy and that should never have been imposed in the first place, the proposed miscellaneous tariff bill would make our system a bit less corrupt, not more so.

P.S. So why am I blogging about all this two weeks after the fact? I did not want to jeopardize the chances of the Washington Post actually publishing an edited version of this critique in its letters to the editor section. My patience was rewarded this morning with publication of an edited version of my letter.