A Fresh Start for US Trade Policy: Unilateral Trade Liberalization through a Tariff Reform Commission



Daniel Griswold and Donald J. Boudreaux | MERCATUS RESEARCH

Unilateral trade liberalization has been an underutilized tool to promote the freedom, prosperity, and global influence of Americans. For all the reasons expounded above, cleaning up the tariff code and ridding the nation of these self-imposed and self-damaging taxes on international commerce would promote the US national interest. It would enhance the already considerable strengths of the United States’ dynamic market economy and its leadership as the world’s largest economy. As the acclaimed free-market economist Milton Friedman wrote more than half a century ago,

“I believe that it would be far better for us to move to free trade unilaterally, as Britain did in the 19th century when it repealed the Corn Laws. We, as they did, would experience an enormous accession of political and economic power. We are a great nation and it ill behooves us to require reciprocal benefits from China, Mexico or Europe before we reduce a tariff on products from those countries. Let us live up to our destiny and set the pace, not be reluctant followers.”

Policy models exist for overcoming the institutional barriers to unilateral trade liberalization in the United States. In the Base Realignment and Closure and the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill processes, the US government has already implemented an approach that could be used to successfully reduce and eliminate thousands of economically damaging tariffs that have been imposed either by law or by executive fiat, to the detriment of American producers and consumers alike. While the details will be a matter of compromise, a Tariff Reform Commission in the pattern of the BRAC or MTB processes would be a practical policy goal.

Embracing a process of unilateral trade liberalization would allow the US Congress and presidential administration to implement tariff reforms on a timely basis that would strengthen the US economy and aid in the fight against COVID-19 and other public health threats, while setting a powerful example for other nations. Implementing such a policy would not be an experiment based on theory alone, but the Americanization of a policy approach that has been practiced successfully by other nations for decades. It would be an agreement among Americans to act in their sovereign national interest regardless of the trade policies pursued by other nations.


Daniel Griswold is the co-director of the Trade and Immigration Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Donald J. Boudreaux is the senior fellow for the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics; Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a Professor of Economics at George Mason University

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