Little Tariff Man

little tarriff man
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
little tarriff man
The Custom House, New York, 1799-1815, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Hey, this thing ain’t got no bill of rights! argued those who were opposed to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Or words to that effect.

No problem, ratify this puppy and we’ll get cracking on your Bill o’ Rights lickety-split, promised James Madison. Or words to that effect.

Madison was by some accounts mildly surprised, then, when the first Congress met after ratification and, instead of demanding quick delivery on the promise of a Bill of Rights, started scrambling to enact some tariffs, but quick.

Well, that was one of the points of making a new Constitution in the first place: Under the Articles of Confederation, there was a federal government, sort of, but no money, and no way to raise any except asking states (persnickety, then as now) to give it some. At the deliberate, intentional expense of state power, the Constitution strongly empowered a new federal government to raise its own stinkin’ money. One of the very first things the very first Congress did was to get right on that, by enacting tariffs.

Tariffs on imports would end up being the largest source of federal revenue for the United States until Lincoln and his tax-and-spend Republicans passed all manner of taxes, including the nation’s first federal income tax, because defeating enslavers militarily was expensive. Tariffs would continue to be a significant source of revenue, until passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, which allowed Congress to establish a federal income tax (that the court couldn’t overturn this time). From then on, tariffs as a proportion of federal revenue would more or less continue to decline steadily. They’re currently about 1 percent of all federal revenue.

Which brings us to Tuesday, and this:

M’kay, let’s recap:

  1. Raiding the great wealth of our nation is fine, as along as the raiders pay for the privilege of doing so. Is this the same transactional principle whereby murdering a U.S. resident is fine, as long as the authoritarian monarch who does the murdering pays for the privilege of doing so by purchasing weapons from the U.S. defense industry?
  2. People or countries paying for the privilege of raiding our great wealth “will always be the best way to max out our economic power.” Yeah. I got nothing.
  3. We are “taking in $billions in Tariffs.” Trump has argued in the past that higher tariffs will reduce the national debt. By at least one estimate, revenues from tariffs are so negligible, so small relative to the size of overall federal revenues and the national debt, that even large increases in tariffs would have no discernible impact on the debt. (Also, just by the way, if in fact Trump and his Republicans in Congress are concerned about debt, their tax cut bill sure is a funny way to show it.)
  4. MAKE AMERICA RICH AGAIN. Wait. People and countries are raiding the “great wealth of our Nation.” Sounds like we’re already rich. Maybe there’s a distribution problem?

It may have meant something to be a “Tariff Man” in 1789, or even 1861. In 2018? It’s just something crackpots say on twitter.

Hugh Jackson
Editor | Hugh Jackson has been writing about Nevada policy and politics for more than 20 years. He was editor of the Las Vegas Business Press, senior editor at the Las Vegas CityLife weekly newspaper, daily political commentator on the Las Vegas NBC affiliate, and wrote the then-groundbreaking Las Vegas Gleaner, which among other things was the only independent political blog from Nevada that was credentialed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He spent a few years as a senior energy and environmental policy analyst for Public Citizen, and has occasionally worked as a consultant on mining, taxation, education and other issues for Nevada labor and public interest organizations. His freelance work has been published in outlets ranging from the Guardian to Desert Companion to In These Times to the Oil & Gas Journal. For several years he also taught U.S. History courses at UNLV. Prior to moving to Las Vegas, he was a reporter and then assistant managing editor at the Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming’s largest newspaper.


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