Chapter 3 — Protection As a Universal Need

Protection, 
as the term has come to signify a certain national policy, means the levying of duties upon imported commodities for the purpose of protecting from competition the home producers of such commodities. Protectionists contend that to secure the highest prosperity of each nation it should produce for itself everything it is capable of producing, and that to this end its home industries should be protected against the competition of foreign industries. They also contend that to enable workmen to obtain as high wages as possible they should be protected by tariff duties against the competition of goods produced in countries where wages are lower.

The protective theory, it is to be observed, asserts a general law, as true in one country as in another. It implies that by virtue of social laws, as immutable as the physical laws, each nation must stand jealously on guard against every other nation and erect artificial obstacles to national intercourse. It implies that a federation of mankind, such as that which prevents the establishment of tariffs between the states of the American Union, would be a disaster to the race, and that in an ideal world each nation would be protected from every other nation by a cordon of tax collectors, with their attendant spies and informers.

Religion and experience alike teach us that the highest good of each is to be sought in the good of others; that the true interests of men are, harmonious, not antagonistic; that prosperity is the daughter of good will and peace; and that want and destruction follow enmity and strife. The protective theory, on the other hand, implies the opposition of national interests; that the gain of one people is the loss of others; that each must seek its own good by constant efforts to get advantage over others and to prevent others from getting advantage over it. It makes of nations rivals instead of co-operators; it inculcates a warfare of restrictions and prohibitions and searchings and seizures, which differs in weapons, but not in spirit, from that warfare which sinks ships and burns cities. Can we imagine the nations beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks and yet maintaining hostile tariffs?

Every political truth must be a moral truth. Yet who can accept the protective theory as a moral truth?

Conscientious men will (until they get used to them) shrink from false oaths, from bribery, or from other means necessary to evade a tariff, but even of believers in protection are there any who really think such evasions wrong in themselves?

That unscrupulous men, for their own private advantage, break laws intended for the general good proves nothing; but that no one really feels smuggling to be wrong proves a good deal. Whether we hold the basis of moral ideas to be intuitive or utilitarian, is not the fact that protection thus lacks the support of the moral sentiment inconsistent with the idea that tariffs are necessary to the well-being and progress of mankind?

To make that a crime by statute which is no crime in morals is inevitably to destroy respect for law; to resort to oaths to prevent men from doing what they feel injures no one is to weaken the sanctity of oaths. Corruption, evasion, and false swearing are inseparable from tariffs. Can that be good of which these are the fruits?

Consider how sharply this theory of protection conflicts with common experience and habits of thought. Who would think of recommending a site for a proposed city or a new colony because it was very difficult to get at? Yet, if the protective theory be true, this would really be an advantage.

Whether protectionists or free traders, we all hear with interest and pleasure of improvements in transportation by water or land; we are all disposed to regard the opening of canals, the building of railways, the deepening of harbors, the improvement of steamships as beneficial. But if such things are beneficial, how can tariffs be beneficial? The effect of such things is to lessen the cost of transporting commodities; the effect of tariffs is to increase it. If the protective theory be true, every improvement that cheapens the carriage of goods between country and country is an injury to mankind unless tariffs be commensurately increased.

It is not only improvements in transportation that are antagonistic to protection, but all labor-saving invention and discovery. Tariffs are maintained for the avowed purpose of keeping out the products of cheap foreign labor; yet machines are daily invented that produce goods cheaper than the cheapest foreign labor. Clearly the only consistent protectionism is that which would not only prohibit foreign commerce, but forbid the introduction of labor-saving machinery.

Clearly, if there is any truth in the protective theory it must apply not only to the grand political divisions but to all their parts. If a country ought not to import from other countries anything which its own people can produce, the same principle must apply to every subdivision; and each state, each county and each township must need its own protective tariff.*

But to follow the protective theory to its logical conclusions we cannot stop with protection between state and state, township and township, village and village. If protection be needful between nations, it must be needful not only between political subdivisions, but between family and family. If nations should never buy of other nations what they might produce at home, the same principle must forbid each family to buy anything it might produce? Social laws, like physical laws, must apply to the molecule as well as to the aggregate. But a social condition in which the principle of protection was thus fully carried out would be a condition of utter barbarism.


* The octroi, or municipal tariff on produce brought into a town, is still levied in France, though abolished for a time by the Revolution. It is a survival of the local tariffs once common in Europe, which separated province from province and town from country. Colbert, the first Napoleon, and the German Zollverein did much in reducing and abolishing these restrictions to trade, producing in this way good results which are sometimes attributed by protectionists to external tariffs.