PROTECTION OR FREE TRADE? was written by Henry George in 1886. It is still in print and readily available. It rebuts most of the arguments being put forward by both camps in the Brexit debate, as well as the protectionist sentiments that seem to be at large in the USA following the election of Donald Trump. It has become essential reading, for it provides a guide to the morass of debate that has developed in the wake of the referendum result and the Trump presidential victory
The EU is founded on protectionist trade principles, as becomes clear when people express concern about losing access to the Single Market, which is not a free trade area but a customs union, sustained by an external tariff wall and the internal tariff that is Value Added Tax. Brexit supporters are divided between those who want to see a tariff wall around the UK, under the pretext of protecting British jobs, and a minority, who are in favour of genuine free trade.
Trump was elected partly on the populist belief that protectionism would somehow bring about a revival of industry in the US which has become obsolete as production has moved to other parts of the world. It seems as if he is intent on putting policies into effect with the intention of reversing this long-term trend. They can be guaranteed not to work, except in isolated instances. The overall result will be to do nothing but damage to the US economy and make most people poorer. A trade war with China also brings with it wider risks.
George demonstrates, wittily, with irony, and using the technique of reduction to absurdity, the fallacy of the protectionist arguments. Anyone who reads the book will realise that the best way forward for a post-Brexit Britain would be to open the doors to tariff-free imports and scrap the internal tariff of VAT. The prospects of the latter do not look good, unless the Chancellor takes the bold step of putting the tax under scrutiny. Tariff-free imports, on the other hand, are a more realistic proposition, if only because of the trouble and expense involved in blocking the import of goods by holding them in customs compounds at every port around the country while they wait for clearance.
However, unless we get rid of VAT and resist the temptation to replace it with some kind of purchase tax, people entering the UK will once again face the return of the "anything to declare" business, the abolition of which was one of the better aspects of being in the EU.