November 16, 2003

Just say no to steel tariffs

Excellent article on the steel tariffs by George Will:

Last week the WTO said, for a second time, something that hardly needs saying at all -- that the tariffs the Bush administration imposed 20 months ago on imported steel are not justified by any demonstrated surge in steel imports, and are as illegal as picking pockets, which all tariffs do. As adolescents say when told something obvious: Duh.

Thirteen months after winning an excruciatingly close election, Bush proved himself less principled than Bill Clinton regarding the free trade principles that have fueled world prosperity since 1945. His tariffs were supposed to provide a three-year "breathing space'' for domestic steel makers -- who have been on the respirator of protection for decades.

Since then various studies, not all of them disinterested, have reached the same conclusion: By raising the cost of goods manufactured from steel, the tariffs have cost more jobs than they have saved. Duh.

(...)

In an election year, or in the year before an election year -- that is, in any year -- it is difficult for democracies to be governed sensibly, given the political class' preoccupation with cobbling together majorities from factions receiving government favoritism. Fortunately, the WTO has presented the president with an excuse to retreat from the futility of trying to erect a wall between the steel industry and reality. That protection comes at the expense of the 99.9 percent of Americans who are not steelworkers whose jobs are endangered.

A steel executive warns against "buckling'' to the WTO. Buckling? To an institution the United States helped to create in order to promote the free trade policies favored by every U.S. administration since the Second World War?

Alas, Bush may be tempted to play the national security card by arguing that tariffs are necessary because, well, tanks need steel. Five months after 9/11 he told a cattlemen's convention that agriculture subsidies are national security measures because "this nation has got to eat.'' That is nonsense, but entertaining.