The president comes off as modern and cosmopolitan. However, he has taken a breathtaking turn in trade policy at the expense of his own citizens.
When presidential candidate Joe Biden was asked in 2020 what he intended to do with the tariffs that President Donald Trump had imposed on imports from China if he were elected, his answer certainly did not lack for clarity. According to Biden, the tariffs were a complete failure because they actually placed a greater burden on those buying goods in the United States than on the manufacturers in China. Therefore, they would have to be abolished.
This analysis was correct at the time and still is a year after Biden’s inauguration, which raises the question of why the tariffs are still in effect. The answer is sobering: because Biden has taken a truly breathtaking turn. While he comes off as cosmopolitan and someone who is not as crude as Trump, he has in fact adopted Trump’s political approach, one that considers tariffs to be an effective tool of economic policy. Biden’s trade policy, as an American political scientist recently wrote, is a kind of “Trumpism with a human face.”
Now, of course, China isn’t the wrong country to hit with tariffs. The commercial communists in Beijing flout every trade rule that stands in the way of their economic expansion efforts. Furthermore, Biden recently lifted tariffs on steel and aluminum shipments from the European Union, tariffs that Trump had imposed. Doesn’t this show that Biden is taking a much different approach?
Yes and no. The sitting president is no doubt three classes smarter than his predecessor, who thought it was a brilliant strategy to pick a fight with the whole world at the same time. And yet the treaty with the EU does not contradict the conclusion that Biden is following Trump’s trade policy; it even substantiates it. That’s because the tariffs were suspended in order to lower costs for American importers. However, this only applies as long as European steel companies do not supply more steel to the United States than the political leaders in Washington claim.
Free Trade Has Lifted Hundreds of Millions of People out of Poverty
It has little to do with the idea of free trade, which Europe and the United States have tried to establish for decades as the preferred model of the collective global economy. In its place comes a system that the Americans call “managed trade.” It’s a system in which neither supply and demand nor prices and long-term business relationships primarily decide what gets shipped where. Instead, bureaucrats, quotas and Excel spreadsheets decide.
To be clear, free trade and the division of labor are not ends in themselves. They have to serve people and require clear guardrails. They need to take a back seat to fighting climate change, child labor and exploitation, and they must not result in a situation where a country lacks cheap goods like face masks and surgical gowns during a pandemic. However, this is all secondary at best to Biden. Instead of preparing his own citizens for the jobs of the future with the help of bold education reforms, he is employing Trumpian extortion tactics to protect the domestic economy from troublesome foreign competition. Biden is not just harming American consumers by tightening the supply and driving up prices. He’s employing a strategy that has been repeatedly proven to be futile in recent decades. This applies to an attempt to use tariffs to protect the domestic cotton industry from foreign competition as well as the futile attempts to keep Japanese cars out of the U.S. market.
Free trade has its pitfalls; it threatens jobs and promotes exploitation. At the same time, it is the global economic principle that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of hunger and poverty over the decades in places like Latin America and Asia. It is true that the work to establish stable guardrails and ever better social, labor and environmental standards will never end. However, it can only succeed if the EU and the United States in particular lead the movement instead of continuing to tiptoe around Trump’s cupboard of poison.