Reason Podcast

Should the U.S. Unilaterally Abolish All Tariffs And Duties? A Debate on Free Trade.

Watch Don Boudreaux vs. Rick Manning at the Soho Forum.

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On November 13, George Mason University economist and Cafe Hayek blogger Don Boudreaux faced off against Rick Manning of Americans for Limited Government in a public debate about free trade. The event was part of The Soho Forum, Reason's monthly debate series held at the SubCulture Theater in New York City's East Village.

The resolution: "The U.S. government should unilaterally abolish all tariffs and duties on imports and all subsidies to exports, thereby making all reciprocal trade agreements with other countries unnecessary." Boudreaux defended the proposition, and Manning attacked it.

Catch our past Soho Forum debates here.

Coming up on December 11: Tarren Bragdon of the Foundation for Government Accountability and Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress debate welfare. Tickets are $18 ($10 for students). Get them here.

*Note: This story was originally published on November 27th, 2017. It's now been updated and re-released on the Reason Podcast.

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  1. I got some hot opinions. Who wants ’em?

    1. Warning: when BUCS says “hot opinions,” he does not mean what you want “hot opinions” to mean.

      1. At first I assumed it meant he was going to take his penis out, but then I remembered that his code for that is “I brought a hot dish to share.” Tangentially related: BUCS is no longer welcome at my house for Thanksgiving.

        1. I’ve never hidden what I am and you still invited me. I’m sorry about the holes in the wall of every room in the house, but you knew what you were getting.

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        2. What did you do with the turkey?

        3. Also, when BUCS say “dessert is on me,” he is being quite literal.

  2. Yes, but it sort of assumes all other nations would do the same which they almost certainly wouldn’t do.

      1. It probably should, since otherwise it isn’t ‘free trade’.

          1. Sure thing, I’ll call up China right now and have them stop being a Communist centrally planned economy and I’m sure they’ll stop it post haste so we can all have free trade. (Or are you saying that foreign subsidy is peachy, it’s only domestic subsidy that causes problems?) ^_-

            It’s an absurd debate, though, since ‘Free Trade’ is rather like that storied ‘Real Communism’ in that neither of them are likely to exist.

            1. I’m saying that your understanding of what people mean by ‘free trade’ is mistaken. It refers to the trade policy of the country/government in question. Frankly, that’s the only way the term even makes sense to me. The idea that the state of a country’s trade being ‘free’ or ‘unfree’ depends on the laws of other jurisdictions is baffling to me. When someone says, “The US should embrace free trade,” they mean exactly that: the US should embrace it. That is, the US government.

            2. Re: BYODB,

              Sure thing, I’ll call up China right now and have them stop being a Communist centrally planned economy[…]

              Why would you think that the sine qua non for free trade?which means letting ME trade with whoever I want to, so fuck you?is that China becomes a libertarian paradise?

              since ‘Free Trade’ is rather like that storied ‘Real Communism’ in that neither of them are likely to exist.

              That’s an absurd comparison. Communism is based completely on a false principle: that man has no right to property. Instead, free trade exists as the CONSEQUENCE of free people interacting with other free people. What is being judged when Reason, professor Boudreaux and other economists and analysts talk about Free Trade is the economic impact of a government acting like a criminal enterprise which extorts money for letting you get to your goods at port, not if Free Trade is a real thing.

              1. So, in short, yes basically what is being said is foreign subsidy is good and domestic subsidy is bad.

                And here I thought people were arguing against protectionism itself when really people are effectively arguing for foreign protectionism. Fair enough I suppose, but perhaps I’m extrapolating too much.

                The idea that the state of a country’s trade being ‘free’ or ‘unfree’ depends on the laws of other jurisdictions is baffling to me.

                On the face of it, it’s not that complicated of an idea. If you’re trading in a foreign market, you’re trading on their terms. In other words, you’re free to pick which heavily regulated and subsidized markets you choose to buy or sell in, which isn’t really that ‘free’. Government still sets the rules you’re playing by, it’s just shifting which government does so. Please note I’m not saying this is inherently good or bad, it’s just a thing that exists.

                The further down you drill the more complicated it becomes though, and I’m no international economist so I fully admit my opinion is pretty valueless.

                1. Oh, and just to note it you’re absolutely correct in what the term ‘free trade’ generally refers to MJ I just think that’s an overly rosy way of viewing it, and I think it discounts a lot of potential factors. The reason for that, as far as I can tell, is that a truly ‘free market’ where nothing is dictated is likely not an animal that exists in the modern world so accounting for such a thing has never entered the equation.

                  1. Last thing, if America unilaterally decided we were going to abolish all tariffs and subsidy the fact remains that all trade is at least bilateral.

                    *shrug*

                2. China’s subsidies are foreign to us, but domestic to THEM. It’s the Chinese who are paying for them, not us.

                  1. Absolutely correct, but the fact remains that the markets would be distorted in either scenario. It’s also something of a fallacy to say that America’s protectionism ‘hurts us’ when in fact it helps some and hurts others. *shrug*

      2. Oh yeah Mr Smart Guy? Well just which part of “unilaterally abolish all tariffs and duties” doesn’t assume the reciprocity of all other nations?

        1. Didn’t the British do that in the 19th century for a while?

          1. No. I mean they abolished any trade duties their weaker trading partners tried to impose. Brutalized China to promote the free trade of opium- maybe that’s what you meant.

        2. Re: Hugh Akston,

          Oh yeah Mr Smart Guy? Well just which part of “unilaterally abolish all tariffs and duties” doesn’t [sic] assume the reciprocity of all other nations?

          It’s right there where it says “unilaterally”.

    1. Re: BYODB,

      Yes, but it sort of assumes all other nations would do the same which they almost certainly wouldn’t do.

      There’s no such assumption. It’s not even suggested. It’s like thinking that the only trade you can have with Walmart or Sears is an equitable one where Walmart or Sears buys your wares so you can buy theirs. That’s the kind of assumption that incompetent economic ignoramuses(*) come up with.

      (*) Trumpistas, for short.

      1. Trump’s views on trade is one of his major shortcomings, for sure, but this also assumes that what he says is what he thinks which…I’m less sure of that these days.

        1. I think the guy blurts out what he thinks and then backpedals afterwards or accuses everyone else of misconstruing his simplistic and simple-minded musings.

  3. The US can’t do unilateral free trade because CHINA IS COMMUNISS! It’s COMMUNISS

    1. They are SLAVES.

      I thought Manning started out pretty good and had the better (if slightly off-topic) argument about other uses of trade agreements, but by the end he sounded like… well, like John. He starts out semantic and precise, and ends with emotional appeals and euphemisms about national character and junk.

      1. Re: Unlabeled MJGreen,

        He starts out semantic and precise, and ends with emotional appeals and euphemisms about national character and junk.

        In other words, he made his case on moral grounds rather than economic ones.

        1. Kinda. Watch the debate for yourself, but as I recall, his prepared argument is about practical concerns – political feasibility, historical success of trade agreements, protecting IP, etc. – but by the end he’s going on about using trade agreements as foreign policy and representing American values. I felt like we got the two popular conceptions of the conservative persona: the hard-headed ‘realist’, followed by the condescending, jingoistic nationalist.

        2. Maybe his moral grounds, but not my moral grounds – I buy my coffee beans at inflated prices from oppressed dirt-poor farmers in Belize.

  4. Lets go back to the early years of the Constitution and have no income tax and most of a much smaller government paid for by tariffs.

    1. Only if we can return to 18th century levels of spending. Given the cost of aircraft carriers and tanks I think it might be tough.

      It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

  5. “The U.S. government should unilaterally abolish all tariffs and duties on imports and all subsidies to exports, thereby making all reciprocal trade agreements with other countries unnecessary.” Boudreaux defended the proposition, and Manning attacked it.

    Manning belongs to an organization that defends limited government except when the government helps the economic interests of a few by playing SimCity with foreign trade.

    1. Tariffs are just a tax. Why should I be upset over one tax as opposed to all the other taxes that I have to pay.

      I would be better off if they reduced or abolished the income tax then the tariffs.

      But some people interest is more about imports and exports so they call for getting rid of the tariffs.

      1. Re: DJF,

        Tariffs are just a tax. Why should I be upset over one tax as opposed to all the other taxes that I have to pay.

        Because a) tariffs are a tax on your existence, rather than a tax on your income. And b) because tariffs are designed to benefit a specific set of producers, which means you’re subsidizing them.

        I would be better off if they reduced or abolished the income tax then the tariffs.

        Actually you would be better off if tariffs are abolished first, because that would increase your purchasing power overnight.

        But some people interest is more about imports and exports so they call for getting rid of the tariffs.

        Perhaps but tariffs are the easiest of taxes to abolish.

        1. This is so fucking dumb. Like embarrassingly so. Like prenatal screening for this genetic disease level dumb.

      2. “But some people interest is more about imports and exports so they call for getting rid of the tariffs.”

        Art Vandelay agrees with this.

  6. I wish Boudreaux could sit down with Trump for just one hour.

    1. What do you have against Boudreaux?

  7. Yes, of course. Why punish US consumers, just because other countries’ government punish consumers in their countries?

    1. The problem is that the trade policies of countries like China also punish businesses in the US with whim they compete.

      1. If a company feels it is being punished by China’s trade policies, it doesn’t have to continue to do business there, does it?

        1. I agree the world doesn’t like our tariffs they can go suck a dick.

          1. Who invited you – or Washington – the the trade negotiations? Don’t tell my customers or suppliers to go suck a dick; in fact, go have a mouthful yourself.

            1. Adapt to the new tariffs or die. Chin up bucko you can always learn to code.

        2. I’m talking about competing against Chinese businesses doing business on our soil. Their govt. regularly subsidizes their businesses to where a US business can’t compete with their products. I suppose they can just shut down, it isn’t important that there US businesses it?

  8. Yes, unless there are National Security implications regarding the products/industries in question.

    1. And there always are, aren’t there? Cotton is a national security implication? Sure, soldier’s uniforms use cotton. What about sand? Are you kidding me? tactical vehicle turret periscopes are made of glass which are made of sand. How about soda? Why yes, you see…

  9. This is an interesting topic… no easy answers.

    I think the USA should return to our free trading ways and stop being so insecure about the future, thinking we can prevent change by crystallizing our past advantages in laws and tariffs. Adapt or die.

    1. A great way to die is to adapt rules that are rigged against you. Reciprocity is the only basis for a stable relationship between partners.

      1. A wholly false premise. You trade what you have for what you want, as does the other guy. Maybe he wants what he has to trade more than you want what you have to trade. If so there is an imbalance – you have to offer more of your goods for his. And what if you have nothing he wants, but you have what another of his trading partners wants? Either you, or he, will have to make that trade so you can get what you want. None of this comes out in the wash because “the wash” doesn’t pertain to any one group; trade is always always always asymmetrical. “Fair” trade deals, when judged by a party outside the actual trade is nothing more than a political talking point.

        1. Welp this is a democracy and frankly I don’t give a shit about your likely sketchy import export business. And if the new rules are too tough on you tough titties- maybe you can try and learn how to code.

  10. I’m for unilateral free trade. What a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that tariffs affect the people of the country imposing the tariff more than it affects the country the tariffs are applied to. Given this, removing the tariffs and restrictions is more beneficial than applying the tariffs.

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