French economist Frédéric Bastiat was a man far ahead of his time. He was a “classical liberal,” which, today, would identify him as a libertarian. He expanded upon the free-market argument set forth by Adam Smith in 1776.
In 1845, the French government levied protective tariffs on scores of items, from sewing needles to locomotives. The intent was to protect French industries from companies outside France that could produce the goods more cheaply.
The reaction from Mister Bastiat was to publish The Candlemaker’s Petition, a satirical proposal to the government that was intended to help them to see the nonsense of protective tariffs.
The petition was presented as having been sent “From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, Sticks, Street lamps, Snuffers and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol and Generally Everything Connected with Lighting.”
Their plea to the Chamber of Deputies was that the government pass a law, “requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds — in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses.”
Mister Bastiat’s satirical petition did an exemplary job of exposing the tendency of governments to pander to special interest groups, to the detriment of everyone else.
Throughout the ages, protective tariffs have been created for this purpose and, historically, they work only briefly, if at all.
So, why on earth are political leaders so quick to impose tariffs? Well, don’t forget: tariffs are paid to the government. Any government that’s facing revenue problems will be tempted to go for a quick injection of revenue, even if it will ultimately be destructive. Regardless of how much damage tariffs do to the people of a country, tariff revenue is like manna from heaven for governments.