If you think free trade is bad for the economy, you must either think taxes on imports are good for the economy, or taxes on imports are even worse for the economy than having free trade, which is bad. If you take position #1, you either believe that 4000% taxes (in effect, no trade at all) are better than no taxes, or that there is some tax rate on trade, between 0 and 4000, that is “best.” Let’s examine each of these cases for a simple product, bananas.
No bananas are grown in the United States, because the climate isn’t right; they are grown in Ecuador and other countries, and then shipped here. Let’s say with free trade, everyone has to pay $1 for a banana from Ecuador, and there are 110 bananas sold every year. The government introduces a tax on trade, say 20 cents per banana, which raises the cost of bananas to, say, $1.10 (Half the tax is paid by the customer, and half eats into the banana farmer’s profits. In real life, the new price would be anywhere between $1 and $1.20, depending on how much consumers are still willing to buy bananas). In response, customers buy only 100 bananas from Ecuador this year. Wawa and Safeway and Wegman’s buy less bananas, because their customers are buying less bananas. This means they can’t make as much money, because they make a small margin on every sale. Not to mention, Jamba Juice charges more for smoothies, because bananas are more expensive. Ecuadorean farmers are also worse off – they can only charge 90 cents per banana as opposed to 1 dollar per banana, and in addition they’re selling fewer bananas – 100 vs. 110. To summarize, the consumer is worse off – he/she has to pay $1.10 as opposed to $1 for a banana. Grocery stores, food trucks, and smoothie makers are worse off – they don’t make as much money from selling bananas as they did before. And Ecuadorean farmers are worse off – they don’t sell as many bananas as before and they are forced to sell them for less money.
At this point, a Smart Joe decides to grow bananas in Florida. Because he has to pay each of his workers in Tampa more than the farmers in Quito, and because he needs a lot more fertilizer and irrigation to grow his bananas than the Ecuadoreans, the cheapest he can produce bananas for is $2. Seeing as he can only sell them for $1, Smart Joe isn’t doing very well; in fact, he’ll be out of business by the end of the week. But he gets a great idea. He rounds up three friends who pool their money to pay a lobbyist to turn Congress against Ecuadorean bananas, arguing that the Ecuadorians are getting rich at the expense of Americans who pay exorbitant amounts for their bananas, and that because the Ecuadoreans are doing so well selling bananas, they’re taking jobs away from his farm. Smart Joe goes on the floor of Congress, talking about how hard his life is as a farmer and how he’ll be out of business by the end of the week. Hillary Clinton, with her eye on the next nomination, gets up and talks about protecting American jobs. Congress passes a law to tax banana imports $400 per banana. Out of desperation, Ecuadorean farmers decide to give away their product for free. Even so, no one in America is willing to pay the $400 tax for bananas, the farmers are forced out of business by the end of the week, and there’s a severe shortage of bananas in the U.S. Jamba Juice, realizing bananas are an integral part of its smoothies, and wanting to make its supplies last a while, responds by charging $100 for every smoothie it makes. Let’s look at the results – the consumer is worse off, having to pay 100 dollars per banana and eventually not being able to buy bananas. Jamba Juice is worse off – it can only make smoothies if it has bananas, and its sales plummet, which hurts every person who owns shares of Jamba Juice, not to mention people who enjoy its smoothies. And Ecuadorean farmers are worse off – they’re all out of business and out of jobs, contributing to unemployment in Ecuador and depriving them of the ability to sell their signature export.
The winners are Smart Joe and his three friends, who quickly buy as much land as he can lay hands on and starts planting bananas, and he has enough trees to sell 20 bananas this year, the entire supply for the United States, which allows him to charge $10 per banana, and receive $8 in profit on every banana sale.
The American Revolution was originally a revolt against high taxes on imports and exports. I just don’t see what people are pointing to when they say free trade is bad for the economy. Maybe they think that we should have no trade, or maybe they think the prices they pay for iPods, or bananas, or gasoline, or sneakers or polo shirts, aren’t high enough as they are.