ECON 101: Protectionism for Dummies
In his latest article "The Social Snobbery of Free Trade" Ian Fletcher goes on yet another of his trademark anti-trade, protectionist tirades, claiming now that free trade advocates are snobs who look down on protectionists as "dummies, losers, incompetents, hippies, rednecks, dinosaurs, closet socialists, or crypto-fascists."
Well, let's take a look.. the underlying economics behind free trade and protectionism are summarized in the chart below:
The graphical analysis above shows what happens economically to a country that moves from: a) free trade with the rest of the world, with consumers paying the world price for a given product, to a b) protectionist trade policy and a new higher price that includes a tariff (tax) that reduces the amount of trade that takes place. Here are the key outcomes of this protectionism:
1. The domestic producers are now better off because they are protected from more efficient foreign competition, and can charge higher prices and increase output. Economically, they have converted consumer surplus (gains) to producer surplus (gains) because of the tariff, and that transfer is represented by the yellow area labeled "Producer Surplus" above. Nothing lost there on net because of the tariff, although domestic producers have used the political process to gain at the direct expense of domestic consumers, who now pay higher prices and purchase fewer units.
2. With a tariff (tax) on imports, the government is now able to generate "Tax Revenue" in an amount represented by the blue rectangle above. This is also a transfer, this time from what used to be consumer surplus (gains from trade) to the federal government. Nothing necessarily lost here either on net, assuming that the government will transfer the tax revenue back to the consumers in the form of beneficial government spending (maybe) or lower taxes elsewhere (maybe).
3. However, the two pink triangles labeled "Societal Loss" are the amount of losses to the consumers and the economy (society) from the protectionist tariffs that are NOT offset by a gain to some other group: producers or government, and represent what economists call the "deadweight loss" or "deadweight cost" of protectionism.
Bottom Line: The deadweight losses from protectionism mean that the economy is worse off on net, or that there has been a reduction in total economic welfare, the total number of jobs, wealth, prosperity, and/or national income. You could argue about the size of the deadweight loss triangles, but it would be really hard to argue that they don't exist. Protectionism has to make the country worse off, on net, and that proposition is supported by 200 years of economic theory and hundreds of empirical studies.
Free trade advocates aren't snobs when they ask protectionists to engage in economic debate grounded on the underlying economic theory, where they can find out pretty easily that it is protectionism that is an "exceedingly dubious policy."