The Unseen Costs of Taxation and Regulation

On a EconLog post about E-Verify, commentor “Jay” writes:

I’m confused, if [E-Verify] poorly enforced and therefore only sparsely followed by employers, how does it raise hiring costs?

Jay’s question is an excellent one, and one that gets down into one of the main reasons we have deadweight loss (DWL) stemming from taxes and regulation.  Taxes and regulations change behavior (if they didn’t, we’d only have a transfer of wealth from consumers/producers to the government and there would be no DWL).  The obvious way they change behavior is when people adopt less efficient use of resources (in the case of E-Verify, hiring a worker who may be less productive over a worker who would be more productive because the first worker will pass E-Verify and the second worker won’t).

But evasion of those taxes and regulations are also a cost.  For example, if an employer hires someone who would not pass E-Verify, and as such goes to lengths to ensure his hiring is not caught (paying him under-the-table, hiding him of INS come looking, that sort of thing), these are all extra costs being paid.  Costs of time, or money, or effort that would otherwise have been spent doing something productive (and that’s not even counting the government’s cost of enforcement!).

These costs, while unseen, are very real.  Employers face evasion costs just like anyone else, and will make decisions based upon them, even if they never show up explicitly as some budget item or in an official government report.  These costs will change their actions, and we are all worse off for it.

Transferring Wealth is Not the Same as Creating Wealth

The Commerce Department has proposed tariffs of up to 20% on Canadian sofwood lumber imports.    These tariffs are phrased by the Administration and supporters as “leveling the playing field” and wealth creating measures.  Ramiyer, commenting on this blog post by Mark Perry, has a typical protectionist scarcityist argument:

Plus [the tariff] saves thousands of jobs who can afford to purchase and go out and eat. These people are real workers. Not some people who just throw their opinions or Wall Street Looters or big cheaters as in case of some CEOs.

It is true that some jobs are ‘saved’.  But that is only half the story: many jobs are lost, too.  Tariffs do not create wealth.  They transfer it.  Tariffs transfer wealth from consumers to producers and the government (for a graphical representation, see my blog post here).  Unlike free trade, no new wealth is created (in fact, tariffs cause wealth to disappear!). The wealth is merely transferred from the consumers and their spending habits to the producers and their spending habits. Therefore, a nation cannot, though tariffs and artificial scarcity, create wealth; it cannot tax itself into prosperity.  It can merely redistribute wealth.

What’s interesting about this is, until very recently, the same people arguing for tariffs now understood this.  They decry welfare and high corporate taxes for the exact same reason I outlined above for opposing tariffs.  I find the hypocrisy nauseating.

Sacrificing the Ends for the Means

Throughout his writing career, Frederic Bastiat repeatedly emphasized that consumption is the end goal of economic activity, that the consumer should be the focus of economic analysis.  While each man is both producer and consumer, man produces so he can consume.  In other words, production is the means and consumption is the ends.  This makes sense if we look at our own lives: we go to work so we can afford our homes, food, cars, clothes, etc.  We don’t consume our clothes, cars, food, homes, so that we can work more!

Although not considered much of a theorist, Bastiat was a bit ahead of his time with this emphasis.*  It would be another 50 years before the commonly-recognized supply and demand curve we use today was developed by Alfred Marshall.  Using the Marshallian Curve, we can explore Bastiat’s** insights with regard to international trade.

Let’s ask the question: what happens when we impose a tariff on international trade?

First, let’s start with our standard supply and demand curve:


The green-shaded areas are “consumer surplus,” or what the consumer gains from the international trade.  The orange is domestic producer surplus (what domestic producers gain).  Domestic producers supply some of the quantity demanded (Qs) and the rest is made up in imports (Qd-Qs).  The total societal surplus is the green and the orange areas added together.

What happens when we impose a tariff?  This:


Green is, as above, consumer surplus.  Orange is producer surplus.  Added in here is the blue area (tax revenue) and red (deadweight loss).  What’s going on here?  Much of what we have is a transfer of wealth: producers gain (from the consumer), government gains (from the consumer).  But where does the deadweight loss come from?  The consumer!  Not only is there a total reduction in welfare in the society (not merely a redistribution), but it all comes from one segment, the segment that is the ends of all production.  The entire welfare loss is borne by the consumer!  

The implications of this analysis are stunning, at least from an economic perspective: you reduce the ends to get more means; Protectionism results in more effort for less welfare!  The supposed blessings of scarcity that protectionism promises never materialize.

*Nor should Bastiat be considered a theorist.  He wasn’t.  He was a great distributor of economic ideas, but didn’t form any himself.

**And Say’s, Smith’s, and Ricardo’s

Ruminations on Monopoly and Antitrust

Monopolies are often derided by economists and non-economists alike, and often for good reason: monopolist firms are less efficient than their perfectly-competitive counterparts (to use more technical language, they charge a price higher than their marginal costs), which means consumers pay more for fewer goods.  Partly based off this theory (but also because of political pressures from reformers) the US in 1890 passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which has become the main tool for the government to break up monopolies into more firms.  This act is hailed even by some free-market advocates for its efforts to create competitiveness.  Are monopolies undesirable and do they run counter to free market principles?  I argue “no” to both questions below the fold.

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In Defense of the Law

The great French economist and philosopher Frederic Bastiat wrote in The Law:

The mission of law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property, even thought the law may be acting in a philanthropic spirit. Its mission is to protect property.

The law is justice — simple and clear, precise and bounded. Every eye can see it, and every mind can grasp it; for justice is measurable, immutable, and unchangeable. Justice is neither more than this nor less than this. If you exceed this proper limit — if you attempt to make the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic, industrial, literary, or artistic — you will then be lost in an uncharted territory, in vagueness and uncertainty, in a forced utopia or, even worse, in a multitude of utopias, each striving to seize the law and impose it upon you. This is true because fraternity and philanthropy, unlike justice, do not have precise limits. Once started, where will you stop? And where will the law stop itself?

Bastiat’s point, that the law exists to serve justice and nothing more, is the essence of the rule of law.  The rule of law is the idea that no one is above the law, but also no one is beneath the law.  Many people remember the first part, but conveniently forget the second.

Over the past few years, and especially since the election of Donald Trump, the law has come under attack, both by those on the Left and the Right.  Both want to carve out exceptions to the law, either by eliminating protections under the law for disliked groups (the Left for the alt-right, the Right for immigrants and Muslims) or by giving themselves greater share of “legal plunder” (tariffs, welfare, subsidies, etc etc).  As a classical liberal, it disheartens me to see my country, one founded on (if not always practiced) the ideals of justice, liberty, and the rule of law so willingly and vehemently attack these very ideals for the sake of political virtue-signalling or simple spite.

Justice is blind.  That means she sees not the devils nor the angels of our nature.  She hears only the circumstances, and defends the wronged party.  Whether that party is black, white, Hispanic, Republican, Democrat, Christian, atheist, Muslim, of the “right” mind, of the “wrong” mind, it doesn’t matter.  Justice defends them all.  This must mean that, yes, we must give the Devil himself the benefit of the law for the sake of justice.

A couple of examples.  First, here is a NYT story explaining the jubilation many had after Richard Spencer (the notorious neo-Nazi) was attacked.  Second, this story from Reason responding to the Republican (and sometimes right-libertarian) argument that immigration should be restricted because immigrants tend to vote Democrat.  In both cases, we have an ‘in-group’ trying to carve out exceptions to the law (in the first case freedom of speech, in the second case freedom of migration and protection under the law) for an ‘out-group’ who thinks differently from the in-group.  In both cases, the in-groups are making a mockery of the law.

As a classical liberal, I will defend the rights of both out-groups, indeed all out-groups, because Justice cares not whether one is in or out, and the law shouldn’t either.  I will defend them, not because of any sympathies to neo-nazis (of which I have none) or particular love of immigrants but for my own safety’s sake.  If we weaken the protection of the law for out-groups, what happens when we find ourselves the out-group?  To borrow the language from A Man For All Seasons, if we cut down every law to apprehend the Devil, what will protect us when the Devil turns on us?  Yes, I would give the Devil the benefit of the law for my own safety’s sake!

Tyrants rarely run roughshod over the law, but rather use precedence set by those before them (this precedence, although itself a mockery of the law, gives the illusion that the tyrant’s actions are lawful).  Exceptions to the law, granted by angles to pursue angelic ends, then become the tools of the devil to pursue devilish ends.  Vast presidential powers, handed over by Congress to the Executive Branch, now lay in the hands of Trump.  A vast regulatory government, once in the hands of relatively moderates now exists in the hands of an ignorant, egomaniac populist.  When the moderates were in power and wanted more and more leeway, the classical liberals objected; like More in the clip above, we refused to cut down the law to pursue the Devil for the exact reason that now is in our face: the Devil has turned ’round upon us and many laws have been cut down.

We must defend the rule of law and its protections for all people, including the Devil himself.  Once the door is opened that people who have “wrong” opinions do not deserve the same protections and liberties as people with “right” opinions, then it’s damn near impossible to close that door.

Throwing Out the Baby With the Bath Water

At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux highlights a new paper by Jonathan Rothwell challenging the findings of David Autor et al that trade with China is harming American workers.  The abstract of the paper sounds interesting, but I want to focus on one point in particular (Emphasis mine):

At the community level, Autor, Dorn and Hanson (2013) find that local areas have experienced slower job and wage growth and higher unemployment because of import competition with China. Upon analyzing their data, I conclude that their results are biased by the weaker macroeconomic performance of 2000-2007 relative to the 1990s. When I analyze inter-local area economic changes — rather analyzing changes within and across areas — I fail to reject the null hypotheses that import competition has no effect on wage or employment growth, except within the manufacturing sector during the most recent period, or that it has no effect on many other outcomes, including labor force participation, intergenerational mobility, and mortality.

There’s an interesting lesson to be learned here, beyond just what Rothwell finds:

Findings can depend on how one slices the data. To wit, Autor et al find significant negative effects when the data is within or across areas and Rothwell finds significant positive effects when the data is inter-local area. We see the same in minimum wage (time series vs panel data, etc).

Any statistician can tell you that regression models can change depending on how you cut and categorize the data: different “n” can give different outcomes, different controls and dummies can give different signs, etc. We try for robustness, but it is still at the end of the day a model.

Of course, none of this is to disparage the work of Autor et al or Rothwell, or even econometrics in general (an important field, if used correctly). But we need to fully understand its limitations and our own assumptions, and be very careful before tossing out theory.

Gordon Tullock, in his 1967 paper in the Western Economic Journal, demonstrates exactly this.  Tullock begins with a conversation regarding welfare costs from monopolies and tariffs, citing recent research that finds these welfare losses are pretty minimal.  In fact, they’re so small that Tullock finds:

Judging from conversations with graduate students, a number of younger economists are in fact drawing the conclusion that tariffs and monopolies are not of much importance.  This view is now beginning to appear in the literature.

Does this mean our theory about trade and tariffs are wrong?  Does this mean tariffs can be helpful, or at least not substantially harmful?  Does this mean microeconomists spend too much time focusing on tariffs at the expense of other topics?  Or is it a measurement issue and the theory is fine?  Tullock explores this issue and finds it is a measurement issue, not a theoretical issue.  In other words, our tools not theory were incomplete.  Tullock explains in the article the need to factor in lobbying costs which do not show up in the standard welfare analysis but are nonetheless substantial (read the article for yourself to see his argument.  It’s short, 9 pages, and not technical at all).

Had Tullock not looked beyond the initial challenge to trade theory, had he (and other economists) just thrown off the theory based upon the small welfare losses, the world would be a far worse place.  As it is, his (and Jim Buchanan’s) explorations eventually lead to the field of Public Choice and provided us with a cleaner understanding on the theory of trade, tariffs, monopolies, politics, and the costs associated therefrom.

The story of Gordon Tullock in the 1960’s is why anyone should be weary of claims that theory of any kind is “mistaken” or “proven wrong” by this or that study.  We see this all the time with minimum wage.  The good economist (or scientist) will ask the question, as Tullock (and Mundell) did back in the 60’s: Is the theory invalid, or our tools?  It may be the theory is (such as with the case of geo-centrism) or our measurement tools are lacking.  In fact, we see this with regards to minimum wage: measurable job losses may be minimal, but there are many other margins firms adjust along, not all of whom are measured.  It would be mistaken to toss out the theory.

Economics is still a young science.  I suspect, as has already happened, some of our theories will be tossed out as we gain more insight and knowledge.  But we musn’t be too hasty in doing so (especially when there is political pressure to do so), lest we sacrifice knowledge for convenience and insight for what my professor Thomas Startmann calls “naive analysis.”

Can a Trade War Create Free Markets?

Craig Walenta’s comment on this blog post at Cafe Hayek got me thinking.  Craig says:

“Well they’re [tariffs] also a way to maybe compel a foreign country to cease its protectionist activities they’re engaging in.”

Craig makes a common (at least among some free market supporters) argument for tariffs on the grounds of promoting free markets, but I’m not quite sure it’s a likely outcome.  The reason is incentives.

Governments tend to like tariffs for multiple reasons, and among those are: 1) they’re vote-getters, 2) they generate tax revenues.  If we assume governments, like all organizations and people, are self-interested and rational, then the case for tariffs becomes obvious: it’s a relatively cheap (in terms of political effort) method of promoting one’s political power.  It is not in the interest of the government to reduce tariffs.  Reduction in tariffs would either mean an increase in other, perhaps less politically safe, taxes or cutback in spending (assuming this to be revenue neutral) and the politician himself would need to look elsewhere for votes.  When a foreign nation enacts protectionist measures against a country, it is unlikely they would respond to removing their tariffs because they face the same incentives as the host nation.  Further, the host nation has no incentive to reduce tariffs even if it “wins” the trade war.

In short, I strongly suspect an “arms race” will develop among the competing nations, one which will only lead to higher tariffs and lower standards of living.  Just as war cannot promote peace, a protectionist trade war cannot promote free markets.