I had to chuckle when I read Scott P. Richert’s “This Is Your Hometown” (The Rockford Files, March).  Did it never occur to him that manufacturers in his own hometown might be hurt by a higher steel tariff?  The trouble is that some conservatives have ceased being conservatives and have become ideologues on the issue of protectionism.  This is just as bad as those “free traders” (Cordell Hull comes to mind immediately) who thought that lowering tariff barriers would lead to international peace and brotherhood.  Some protectionists have gone to the point of seeing native steel as some sort of abstraction that must be defended at all costs.  I trust far more those Pennsylvania steel barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who pushed for higher tariffs and Southern cotton planters of the same time who pushed for “a tariff for revenue only,” as Grover Cleveland liked to say, than I trust ideologues who ignore what is best for their communities.

        —Dr. Tracy S. Uebelhor
Ferdinand, IN

Mr. Richert Replies:

If Dr. Uebelhor found my piece amusing, he should prepare to laugh out loud, because I am in complete agreement with everything he says—with the exception, of course, of his not-so-subtle tagging of me as a protectionist ideologue who would ignore what is best for my adopted hometown of Rockford.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who has read my column over the past two-and-a-half years could testify.  Indeed, if, after recovering from his mirth, Dr. Uebelhor had continued to read, he would immediately have come across these lines: “The problem is not that either tariffs or free trade are bad per se but that they always need to be viewed in historical context. . . . ‘Free trade’ is an abstract concept that has never existed in reality and never will.  Once we recognize that condition, we can also understand that every businessman will try to structure trade in such a way that it will benefit him and his business.  That’s human nature.”

That said, my initially favorable reaction to the Bush steel tariff was a result of my misunderstanding of how it worked—a misunderstanding shared by many who remember the steel tariffs imposed, to good effect, by Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s.  While the Reagan tariffs were comprehensive and applied to manufactured goods as well, the Bush tariff targets only certain grades of raw steel.  Over the intervening years, the Bush I and Clinton administrations, in their near-fanatical pursuit of NAFTA, GATT, and other free-trade agreements, effectively sealed the fate of the American steel industry.  Today, American firms simply can no longer produce enough steel to meet domestic needs (a condition of which, I suspect, very few Americans are aware), and the steel that is produced here is spoken for by companies far larger than Rockford Acromatic.

Under the Bush II administration, we have the worst of both worlds: Tariffs are being used not to save the remaining jobs of a declining manufacturing class (and, in the process, to prevent the destruction of industrial cities such as Rockford) but to provide a short-term infusion of cash to near-monopolistic corporations that no longer have any sense of loyalty to the families and communities that once made them strong.