News this morning that the threat of tariffs was enough to cause the Mexicans to promise better performance in controlling their borders is the surest demonstration that tariffs – if imposed by the United States – have a persuasive effect on smaller actors.
I have watched Steve Bannon be hammered by an arrogant know it all editor of the Economist on this subject. I have watched so great a mind as George Will find that tariffs are the ultimate sin of Big Government.
I know all the arguments. Free trade is good. It reduces prices for consumers. It optimizes lines of production. It expands wealth. Getting rid of them is good.
So why is the middle of America west of the Appalachians becoming an economic desert? Why are entire towns composed of trailers, and why is Walmart the only game in town? Why is the opioid crisis lowering the age of death? Why is there economic despair west of the Mississippi River?
This was the question that voters had to ask themselves in 2016. Their answer, by the narrowest of margins, was Trump. It comes down to something that Tucker Carlson said a while back in an important speech: that the economy is for us, and not we for the economy. The American elites lost sight of the fate of the working class when the value of labour went to nearly zero. I heard language of such contempt for the American white working class coming from white Democrats that, if said about any other group, would be seen as racism. [I have been persuaded that deep snobbery (classism) is as evil as any serious racism.]
I am not persuaded that tariffs are ultimately benign for everyone, but they were used by the Republican Party for a century to help industrialize the United States. Why not now?
And while we are at it, what is the matter with controlling your borders? Even if the threat of tariffs has to be invoked? Much as I admire, and agree with, George Will, the preconditions for the society he wishes to preserve and foster have to be re-created. That would mean an American upper class that gave a damn for the people who inhabit their country. Trump is the visible evidence for that failure, and talking about James Madison’s vision of distributed government will not change that, much as I admire James Madison, and George Will, for that matter.