Are steel tariffs putting America first?

TATA steelworks, Ijmuiden, Netherlands: photo JS

Since running for election, Donald Trump has vowed to ‘put America first’. One of the economic policies he has advocated for achieving this objective is the imposition of tariffs on imports which, according to him, unfairly threaten American jobs. On March 8 2018, he signed orders to impose new tariffs on metal imports. These would be 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium.

His hope is that, by cutting back on imports of steel and aluminium, the tariffs could protect the domestic industries which are facing stiff competition from the EU, South Korea, Brazil, Japan and China. They are also facing competition from Canada and Mexico, but these would probably be exempt provided negotiations on the revision of NAFTA rules goes favourably for the USA.

TATA steel works IJmuiden Netherlands (photo JS)Assuming there were no retaliation from other countries, jobs would be gained in the steel and aluminium industries. According to a report by The Trade Partnership (see link below), the tariffs would increase employment in these industries by around 33 000. However, the higher price of these metals would cause job losses in the industries using them. In fact, according to the report, more than five jobs would be lost for every one gained. The CNN Money article linked below gives example of the US industries that will be hit.

But the costs are likely to be much greater than this. Accorinding to the law of comparative advantage, trade is a positive-sum game, with a net gain to all parties engaged in trade. Unless trade restrictions are used to address a specific market distortion in the trade process itself, restricting trade will lead to a net loss in overall benefit to the parties involved.

Clearly there will be loss to steel and aluminium exporters outside the USA. There will also be a net loss to their countries unless these metals had a higher cost of production than in the USA, but were subsidised by governments so that they could be exported profitably.

Valancia port: photo JSBut perhaps the biggest cost will arise from possible retaliation by other countries. A trade war would compound the net losses as the world moves further from trade based on comparative advantage.

Already, many countries are talking about retaliation. For example, the EU is considering a ‘reciprocal’ tariff of 25% on cranberries, bourbon and Harley-Davidsons, all produced in politically sensitive US states (see the first The Economist article below). ‘As Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, puts it, “We can also do stupid”.’ In fact, this is quite a politically astute move to put pressure on Mr Trump.

But cannot countries appeal to the WTO? Possibly, but this route might take some time. What is more, the USA has attempted to get around WTO rules by justifying the tariffs on ‘national security’ grounds – something allowed under Article XXI of WTO rules, provided it can be justified. This could possibly deter countries from retaliating, but it is probably unlikely. In the current climate, there seems to be a growing mood for flouting, or at least loosely interpreting, WTO rules.




  1. Explain how, by countries specialising in goods in which they have a comparative advantage, all countries can gain.
  2. Can tariffs or other trade restrictions ever be justified? Explain.
  3. Is there any economic justification for the US tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium?
  4. Can putting tariffs on US imports be justified by countries whose steel and/or aluminium industires are faced with US tariffs?
  5. Can trade wars be won? Explain.