What Bush Can Teach Japan About Protectionist Tricks

GEORGE F. WILL

January 09, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- In his campaign swing in the Orient, George Bush and his equally whiny entourage represented America as the crybaby of the Western world.

The tour got off to a stumbling start in Australia. There Mr. Bush, with many representatives of America's industrial anemia in tow, tried to chant the mantra of ''fair'' rather than free trade, but Aussie farmers drowned him out with complaints about huge U.S. subsidies of wheat exports.

The Far East was treated to lectures on ''fair trade'' from an American government that restricts Jamaica to selling 970 gallons of ice cream a year in America, Mexico to 35,292 bras, Poland to 350 tons of alloy tool steel, Haiti (we are protected from that colossus) to 7,730 tons of sugar. Import quotas restrict tampons, typing ribbons, tents, twine, table linens, tapestries and ties and lots of other things.

These delicious facts are from a new book, ''The Fair Trade Fraud,'' by James Bovard of the Cato Institute. Some foreign governments are treating U.S. companies badly but not as badly as the U.S. government, at the behest of U.S. companies, is treating U.S. citizens. Often the pretext is protection from ''dumping.''

Dumping occurs when a foreign company sells a product in America for ''less than fair value.'' That language leaves Commerce Department bureaucrats empowered by every parochial interest in Congress to do almost anything on behalf of clients -- as the bureaucrats regard them -- in U.S. businesses. Bureaucrats ''protect'' American consumers from paying what the bureaucrats consider too little for everything from Brazilian frozen orange juice concentrate to Italian pads for woodwind instruments.

Occasionally there is predatory dumping, designed to cripple or extinguish a rival industry in another nation. But most dumping attempts only to crack a market or enlarge market share. Does it matter? That depends on what is being dumped, for how long and for what purpose.

Some -- very few -- U.S. industries deserve government protection for reasons of basic national security or economic vitality: microchips matter more than potato chips.

But only private aggrandizement has been served by putting dumping penalties on photo albums, pears, mirrors, ethanol, cement, shock absorbers, roofing shingles, codfish, televisions, paintbrushes, motorcycle batteries, staplers and staples, martial arts uniforms, radios, flowers, bicycles, forklifts, fireplace mesh panels, aspirin and many other goods.

Government subsidies (such as we give agriculture products) usually are foolish. But why not let American consumers benefit from the folly of foreign governments that use their tax dollars to make American consumption cheaper?

Instead, we put countervailing duties on wool, ham, castor oil, cotton, yarn, scissors, carnations, pistachios, sugar, towels, lamb meat, footwear, agricultural tools, ball bearings, roses, cement, automobile glass, leather apparel, cookware, rice and other things.

Such American protectionism creates artificial scarcities as a subsidy for American businesses. If the Commerce Department were abolished, America's standard of living would rise.

Blaming Japan for our problems is a national pastime. Alibi Ike used to be a fiction, a good hitter and a good joke. Today he is real, and a senior official and a bad joke.

Mr. Bush's first commerce secretary, now campaign director, is Robert ''Alibi'' Mosbacher. He blames Japan, in part, for America's recession.

Sure. And while we're at it, let's blame Japan for our schools (among the shortest school days and school years in the industrial world), for the anti-competitive burden on business of our health care system (including our trial lawyers and their malpractice industry) and for our federal deficit (which raises the cost of capital).

Writing in the New Republic, Mr. Bovard reports that since July, Mr. Bush has imposed new textile quotas on -- consider this list of mighty predators -- Nigeria, Indonesia, Egypt, the Philippines, Burma, Costa Rica, Panama and Pakistan.

Last year, a Bush administration official coerced Hong Kong and Korea into cutting textile exports. The official called it ''a contribution to Operation Desert Storm.''

Some Commerce Department officials candidly hope the capriciousness of their decisions will deter foreign exporters. Were everyone candid they would acknowledge that much of U.S. trade policy is a jobs program, protecting not least the jobs of many incompetent and overpaid American executives.

Trade policy also is a program to redistribute wealth from unorganized American consumers to well-organized and well-connected commercial interests.

Call it Republican socialism. Or lemon socialism, the survival of the feeble.

Mr. Bush has read little of Adam Smith but lots of polls and now speaks less of free trade and more of ''fair'' trade. So subtract yet another reason from the very short list of possible reasons for voting for him.

Democrats promiscuously affix the word ''fairness'' to policies to disguise partisan politics and the absence of defensible arguments. Now Mr. Bush and other ''fair traders'' are adopting this policy to disguise the slovenly thinking and political opportunism of American protectionism.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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