“Reciprocal” Trade Demands Defy Basic Economics and Common Sense

Despite the immense benefits that Americans have derived from free trade and globalization, as well as the far-reaching costs of protectionism, a “reciprocity” argument—that foreign protectionism against U.S. exports justifies current or even new U.S. protectionism against foreign imports—persists. Indeed, one of the primary justifications for President Trump’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, as well as many other Trump administration trade policy proposals, rests on the notion that it is only “fair” that foreign trade barriers—low or high—be matched by America’s trade barriers. Leaving aside these arguments’ basic factual and historical errors (indeed, most countries’ average tariffs on U.S. iron and steel exports range between 0% and 5%—far less than Trump’s proposed 25%), the President’s reciprocity demands still suffer from many flaws: 

  • Reciprocity illogically demands the United States injure its own citizens because other countries injure theirs. There is overwhelming evidence that protectionism distorts markets and reduces economic welfare. For example, last year I documented “a vast repository of academic analyses and contemporaneous reporting that show that American trade protectionism—even in the periods most often cited as ‘successes’—not only has imposed immense economic costs on American consumers and the broader economy, but also has failed to achieve its primary policy aims and fostered political dysfunction along the way.” President Trump’s own Economic Report concludes that “trade and economic growth are strongly and positively correlated…. a 1-percentage-point increase in the ratio of trade to GDP raises per capita income by between 0.5 and 2 percent.” In terms of specific products, a 2006 International Trade Administration study of U.S. sugar trade barriers found that “[f]or each one sugar growing and harvesting job saved through high U.S. sugar prices, nearly three confectionery manufacturing jobs are lost.” The study also found that sugar trade barriers had caused many sugar-using companies to close or move to foreign markets (e.g., Canada and Mexico) where sugar prices were lower. A 2013 Iowa State University report found that getting rid of the sugar program would save consumers up to $3.5 billion per year. The list goes on and on and on. It therefore defies basic common sense to argue that, just because a foreign country harms its citizens through protectionist policies, the United States should do the same.
  • Reciprocity cedes control of U.S. economic policy to other counties. The reciprocity argument maintains that the United States should not unilaterally dismantle protectionist programs while other countries maintain similar (bad) policies, but this approach cedes U.S. control over its own economic decisions to countries like China or the European Union. Yet the United States should remain free to improve its economy, without the need to wait for other countries to do likewise. It’s particularly odd to hear such an argument from “America First” proponents who decry “globalist” policies that supposedly cede control of U.S. “sovereignty” to foreign powers.
  • Reciprocity undermines reform—including through reciprocal trade agreements. The reciprocity approach also would likely prohibit trade reform in the United States—contrary to popular belief, the United States still maintains numerous tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade—or elsewhere. The WTO’s “Doha Round” of global trade negotiations, meant to update and expand the body’s trade-liberalizing agreements, spent over a decade trying, and failing, to produce an agreement among Members to reduce their trade barriers and subsidies. Among the reasons for this stasis was an unwillingness of any WTO Member (including the United States) to expend the political capital necessary to lead the way—a classic “prisoners’ dilemma.” Reciprocity promises the same inaction in the future—thus why many U.S. politicians and industries advocating import protection argue so loudly for reciprocity! Furthermore, new tariff “reciprocity” threats from the Trump administration are threatening to unravel U.S. trade agreements, like NAFTA, that actually have created reciprocal, free trade regimes—to the great benefit of all parties.
  • Reciprocity ignores the many tools that the United States has to address other countries’ protectionism without harming its own citizens. The reciprocity argument also ignores the fact that the United States could unilaterally eliminate many of its trade barriers and still have ample legal tools at its disposal to encourage others’ to follow suit. WTO negotiations, for either all Members or a select group of them (“plurilateral” talks), could introduce new, binding caps on tariff and non-tariff barriers, and the United States would, unlike the current situation, be in a superior moral and diplomatic position to demand them. The United States could also seek to renegotiate its own tariffs through the procedures set forth in GATT Article XXVIII, which would simply require it to lower U.S. tariffs on other products (or allow other Members to raise some of their own). Current and future U.S. free trade agreements could provide another venue for reforms. Finally, WTO and FTA dispute settlement disciplines permit (1) consultations with a foreign government over many of its trade-distorting measures; and (2) if such consultations fail, investigation of the alleged protectionism and eventual imposition of remedial U.S. tariffs on imports from the offending government. WTO dispute settlement has been particularly effective in this regard, as the President’s own 2018 Economic Report documents.

There is no doubt that some (but not all) nations impose higher barriers to imports of U.S. goods and services than the United States does in return. This is not, however, a weakness in the current system but rather a testament to sound American economic policy, which has generated undeniable benefits for the vast majority of Americans. In short, the United States should not start impoverishing its citizens because other nations lack the economic insight or political strength to stop impoverishing theirs. To do so would not only ignore common sense and basic economics, but also lead to higher trade barriers, fewer reforms and therefore a lower standard of living for us all.

The views expressed herein are those of Scott Lincicome alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employers.