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Should the place of origin add value to – or impose a penalty on — the price on semi-finished goods? Proponents of tariffs on steel and aluminum believe it should.

The Principle is at Stake

March 1, 2018
Free-market principles are more than economics. They reflect and confirm our individual rights.

In a free market, everyone relies on their own interests, needs, expertise, biases, and so forth to secure or improve their status. That’s simplistic, but it’s a simplistic notion; it’s only in the application that the free market becomes complex or contentious. The enduring point – or principle, if you accept it — is that each and every person is an individual agent, and their value and potential draws from their individuality. Advantages based on other factors — where I was born, where I earned my education, etc. — have no assignable value in a free market.

Of course, everyone knows we do not live in a perfectly free market. Prices are set by competition, by availability, and other details – and the free market forces generally conspire to set a fair price. But not always. Job openings generally go to the most qualified candidate. But not always. Multiple factors invariably compete for precedence in people’s decision-making, and sometimes choices are made by unquantifiable factors: we couldn’t wait any longer… the dessert looked so tasty, etc. 

Even so, we adhere to the free market principles because they give us more individual freedom to make choices.

Everyone is a participant in this free market, whether they realize it or not, whether they appreciate it or not. My potential for success is no different than anyone else, at the start – but I enhance my potential by my effort and my initiative. I’ve been researching, reporting, and opining on issues related to metalcasting for several years, getting along mainly on effort and initiative. The market of consumers for my work determines my success.  

When I research or write about metalcasting I frequently rely on some understanding I developed years ago when I followed the primary steel and aluminum industries. It’s not a perfect background, but it gives me some grasp of the science and technologies that I never acquired in my formal education or practical experience. 

One thing I learned in that experience is that people who work in large industrial sectors develop some socialization traits: people who work in steelmaking and aluminum begin to identify themselves as such. They are steel guys, or aluminum guys. (Foundry and diecasting industry workers do this too, of course.) There is no harm in this. It can be very helpful and rewarding.

Another thing such people do is to develop views of the world, of life in general, according to their professional experience, or according to the social experience they gain in their professional activity. They have a view of the free market that is shaped by the experience of working in the industries they know, and that their friends and family know and have known.

Such views of the free market invariably inform their views of world all of us live in, for it is an undeniable truth that large industrial sectors like steel and aluminum have been engaged in the globalization contest for much longer than most other major industrial sectors, or consumers.  Their view of the world as a global market is informed by decades of typically unfair trade that puts their efforts at a cost disadvantage. They believe that regulations should be put in place to guard against that disadvantage — and so now we have the prospect of the U.S. imposing a 25% tariff on all steel imports and a 10% tariff on all aluminum imports. 

Another view of the global market has been formed by an almost wholly separate perspective. People holding this view are manufacturers, investors, and consumers who see advantages in market-priced goods. They like having a wide selection of choices. They want to think of themselves as engaged and succeeding in global commerce.

Manufacturers who rely on steel and/or aluminum are distressed that the free market is being upset, by an unfair advantage being handed to one side of a vast network of commerce. Investors are disappointed too, and consumers who start to see prices rise as a result may soon join in the dissatisfaction.

I agree with these objections but I think they overlook the unquantifiable factors that inform the pro-tariff side. They want something other than cost or availability to inform the decision to buy steel or aluminum. They want the place of origin to add value that the market does not now recognize. In short, they don’t agree with the free-market principles, and they want the rest of us to know it.