Nations Cannot Win or Lose Trade Wars

Nation-states have no resources of their own. They redistribute the resources of their citizens. Nation-states can neither win nor lose when they play with other people’s resources. Tariffs and other weapons of trade wars disrupt normal trade; helping one group at the expense of another.

Illusion of Trade Deficits

The concept of trade wars begins with the illusion of trade deficits. When looking at the economy as a whole, trade deficits simply cannot exist. An economy, as a single unit, does not exist. An economy consists as a network of individual transactions. Thus, any comments about “an economy” require that we look at the nature of those individual transactions.

When a consumer acquires any good or service, by voluntary means, he always gives something in exchange — something he values less than what he gets. Thus, because the parties to an exchange leave with more value than they enter, no deficit can exist in any individual transaction. To make an hypothetical accumulation of all consumer transactions in an economic system the same logic must apply.

Buyers will always give money for the products they buy, whether from a local supplier or from a supplier in another country. Consequently, no deficit exists.

What Happens to the Money?

If a buyer always pays money for goods that he receives from overseas, what happens to that money?

One of three different things can happen to that money:

  • That money pays for products from the country of origin. Those purchases count as exports from the country of origin and thereby reduce the trade “deficit.”
  • That money acquires investments in the country of origin. Those investments, although not included in the GDP, have future benefit for that country.
  • That money buys government debt, which provides money for government giveaways. Those giveaways add to consumption and thereby the GDP. Not a bad thing from the policy-makers’ perspective.

How Do Tariffs Help Nation States Win War?

Only nation-states engage in “trade wars.” Peaceful traders have no incentive to engage in unhealthy activities.

The people involved in actual exchange do so voluntarily and peacefully. If they don’t like the terms of the exchange, they either renegotiate or abandon the transaction.

Since nation-states have no resources of their own, their actions — either through trade restrictions or tariffs — simply redistribute the resources of their own citizens. Nation-states have no weapons of their own for the conduct of trade wars; thus, they have no way of either winning or losing.

Trade Wars Cause Economic Disruption

The trade wars between nation-states disrupt the economies that they profess to help. In an effort to assist one part of the economy they always cause disruptions in other parts of the economy. The policies used in “trade wars” ignore the complexity of the markets with which they deal. For every player their policies help, multiple parties get hurt.

A couple of diagrams will give a very simple idea of the disruption caused by trade wars using tariffs.

Before Tariffs

This first diagram shows the situation before the implementation of tariffs. The consumer buys good G from supplier F (a foreign supplier) instead of buying the same good from supplier A (an American supplier) because it costs less money.

With the money the consumer saves he can buy products from other suppliers. The money earned by those other suppliers can, in turn, buy additional goods from an undetermined number of other suppliers (depicted by the cloud at the bottom).

The consumer gets more benefit and part of that benefit gets passed on to the rest of the economy.

After Tariffs

After the imposition of a tariff, which makes the price of good G from supplier F higher than the price from supplier A, the consumer will have to pay a higher price for the same product. This causes a chain reaction of negative results.

The consumer no longer has the extra money saved. He reduces his spending with other suppliers. The revenue of these other suppliers declines, and they spend less money with their suppliers. An indeterminate number of people in the economy get hurt as a result of the imposition of tariffs.

Please keep in mind the extreme complexity of international trade. A small intervention at one point in the trade process will have effects that ripple throughout the national economy and the international economy. We have no way of measuring the effect of these interventions. Because they always cause a disruption the normal trade process, these interventions will always have negative consequences.

Conclusion

Nation-states can gain only one thing by engaging in trade wars: political power. Some politicians think they are doing good things for their constituents by engaging in trade restrictions and tariffs. They base the activities of “trade war” on the false premise that trade deficits actually exist and they must be cured.

International markets, just like to domestic markets, are entirely too complex to be effectively managed. Messing with otherwise free markets only causes damage to the participants. In particular, it causes damage to those the politicians have sworn to protect.