Unfair trade has dominated the political conversation lately. Allegations that China, South Korea, Mexico, Canada, and many others are being unfair, whether they pay too low or they subsidize some industry, or their tariffs are too high, whatever, abound. These allegations justify the use of tariffs to punish the offending nation(s). Free trade, they say, cannot exist in the face of such injustice and, while it is a fine general case, exceptions must be made for these injustices to be corrected.
But do injustices that occur from a general rule justify exceptions therefrom or to even overturn the rule?
Consider the following general rule: All people in the United States, when accused of a crime, will be tried in an open court before a jury of their peers. The ruling of that jury, barring legal issues, is final.
With that rule in mind, consider the following:
A man is accused of rape. The evidence seems straightforward. After a long trial, the jury retires to deliberate. After a few days of deliberation, the jury returns a verdict of “not guilty.” There is an uproar within the local community. “He was clearly guilty!” they cry. “The decision should be overturned! The jury system failed to deliver justice!”
The natural inclination of any spectator of this situation would be to decry the jury rule. It had clearly failed to deliver its promise. But would overturning such a rule be in the best interests? I think prudence and wisdom suggest “no.” Or, at least, extreme caution.
A general rule, like trial by jury, serves a particular purpose. By nature of its generality, it will not be perfect in all cases. But because it is so general, it can work in most cases. In the case of the jury process, the particular purpose of this rule is to prevent unfair prosecutions and to have evidence judged on its merits; by presenting to a lay audience, it is a test to see if it is plainly obvious that a crime has been committed. Wisdom and prudence suggest that, since this rule has persisted so long, caution should be exercised before overturning it. it may lead to undesired consequences (perhaps tyranny, in the case of juries).
To extend this to trade, the general rule is that people may trade with whomever they want so long as it is voluntary. There are relatively few ways in which the state can object to trade (obviously prohibited items like drugs, prostitution, etc). But this general rule has led to some undesirable outcomes: people have lost jobs to import competition and automation. Some of these job losses, it is observed by some, occurred because this competition is “unfair” due to state subsidies, tax preferences, etc. They, therefore, want to overturn the general rule (or create exceptions to it). Tariffs, restrictions, or outright bans are often banded around as solutions.
But, again, prudence and wisdom urge caution before overturning such a rule. Could it lead to a “slippery slope?” Are the protections granted by the general rule worthwhile? Would the exceptions to the general rule that are granted lead to other forms of rent-seeking, and unfair actions taken by domestic groups (eg, everyone starts clamoring for protections)? The benefits of the general rule are obvious; the costs and consequences, not so much.
Even if we grant that the actions taken by some governments to “support” their trade position are indeed unfair, like the jury example above, creating exceptions to the general rule may achieve more mischief than good.
A final point in conclusion: none of this is to claim status or say the status quo is always and everywhere preferable. General rules can, and should, be examined and overturned when necessary. Rather, what this post is to do is to urge caution when it comes to overturning general rules; a willy-nilly attitude can destroy any and all respect for law and legislation.