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Why a Flat Tariff on All U.S. Imports Would Work

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I advocate protectionism. But one standard criticism is that this would just result in politically connected industries getting tariffs raised on the products they produce. This would corrupt our economy, force consumers to pay higher prices, and serve no legitimate economic logic.

Sounds logical enough. As the 19th-century American radical economist Henry George put it, "introducing a tariff bill into a congress or parliament is like throwing a banana into a cage of monkeys."

So let's just cut that Gordian knot right now: what America needs isn't some complicated system of tariffs, but a flat tariff, the same on every imported good and service.

The exact level at which to set the tariff is an open question. For the sake of argument, we can take 30% as a hypothetical figure, because it is in the historic range of U.S. tariffs and is close to the net pressure on America's trade balance due to foreign nations' VAT or value-added taxes. The right level will not be something trivial, like 2%, or prohibitive, like 150%. But there is no reason it shouldn't be 25 or 35%, and this flexibility will provide wiggle room for the compromises needed to get a tariff through Congress.

A flat tariff would be imperfect, but it would be infinitely better than free trade and relatively politics-proof. Above all, it is a policy people are unlikely to support for the wrong reasons (AKA producer special interests) because it does not single out any specific industries for protection. It would thus maximize the incentive for voters and Congress to evaluate protectionism in terms of whether it would benefit the country as a whole--which is precisely the question they should be asking.

A flat tariff would also create the right balance of special-interest pressures: some interests would favor a higher tariff, others a lower one. This is a prerequisite for fruitful debate, as it means both views will find institutional homes and political patrons.

A flat tariff's uniformity across industries would avoid the problems that occur when upstream but not downstream industries get tariff protection. For example, if steel-consuming industries do not get a tariff when steel gets one, they will become disadvantaged relative to their foreign competitors by the higher cost of American-made steel. And why should steelworkers be protected from foreign competition at the price of forcing everyone else to pay more for goods containing steel? The only reasonable solution is that steelworkers should pay a tariff-protected price for the goods they buy, too. This logic ultimately means that all goods should be subject to the same tariff.

A flat tariff would have other benefits, too. For one thing, it would avoid the danger of getting stuck with a tariff policy that made sense when it was adopted but gradually became an outdated captive of special interests over time, always a risk with tariffs. Although it is a fixed policy, it would not be fixed in its effects, but would automatically adapt to the evolution of industries over time. In 1900, it would have protected the American garment industry from foreign (then mostly European) competition. It wouldn't do that today. As which industries are good industries changes over time, which industries it protects will change accordingly.

A flat tariff would trigger the relocation back to the U.S. of the right industries. For example, a 30% tariff would not cause the relocation of the apparel industry back to the U.S. from abroad. The difference between domestic and foreign labor costs is simply too large for a 30% premium to tip the balance in America's favor in an industry based on semi-skilled labor. But a 30% tariff quite likely would cause the relocation of high-tech manufacturing like semiconductors. This is key, as these industries are precisely the ones we should want to relocate. These capital-intensive, knowledge-intensive industries support high wages and have bright technological futures.

Another objection to a tariff is that if any industry is granted protection, it will just slumber behind it. Some industries indeed long to shut out foreign competition, reach a lazy detente with domestic rivals, then coast along with high profitability and low innovation. But a flat tariff resists this danger because it does not hand out a blank check of protection: it gives a certain percentage and no more. Any industry that cannot get its costs within striking distance of its foreign competitors will not be saved by it. This discipline, although unpleasant for the losers, is the price we must pay for having a tariff that actually works, rather than one which eliminates the discipline of foreign competition entirely and protects all industries indiscriminately.

The political bickering that a tariff varying by industry would cause also militates in favor of a flat tariff. The inability of different industries to coalesce around a common tariff proposal sabotaged efforts to achieve a tariff in 1972-74, but this is a policy around which the greatest possible number of industries can unite.

A flat tariff is also more ideologically palatable than most other tariff solutions. Above all, it respects the free market by leaving all specific decisions about which industries a tariff will favor up to the marketplace. It will thus be considerably easier for ideological devotees of free markets to swallow than some scheme in which tariffs are set by a federal agency, leading to that nightmare of free-marketeers: government picking winners. In the real world, zero government intervention in the economy is impossible, so the issue for believers in economic freedom and small government is to design policies that work through the smallest possible, carefully chosen interventions. This is precisely what the natural strategic tariff offers because it operates at the periphery of our economy, leaving most of its internal mechanisms untouched. In fact, the more wisely we control our economic border, the less we will probably need to control the inside of our economy.

(One final note: a flat tariff would need to include a rebate on reexported goods in order to avoid handicapping American exporters. This would include both goods that are transshipped without modification and goods that are exported after value-added processing. The latter includes everything from chocolate made from imported cocoa to computers made from imported chips. This is implied by its intrinsic logic as a tax on domestic consumption. Other nations follow the same logic in rebating VAT to their exporters.)

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