Tariffs are simply taxes but one can see why subsidies are, in the eyes of some, somewhat justifiable (though they still remain morally reproachable). However, a closer examination of both reveals the problematic, degrading moral assumptions that their imposition necessarily presupposes (along with all protectionist policy). Protectionist policies are, more often than not, designed to protect domestic industry. The argument is usually phrased along the lines of “protecting our farmers’ jobs”, “our workers’ jobs”, “our manufacturing industry”. It all boils down to protecting the jobs of domestic citizens; this is essentially nationalism in benevolent garb.
‘Protecting’ farmers, for example, from the competition of comparatively cheaper foreign imports imposes costs upon domestic consumers (whose range of choice is restricted and who are forced to pay higher prices). However, protecting domestic farmers over foreign farmers via tariffs, subsidies and other trade restrictions presupposes a key value judgment by elevating domestic farmers’ jobs’ intrinsic worth over foreign farmers’ jobs’ intrinsic worth. There is no real economic reason for this since this is one topic that all economists agree on (except, perhaps, for some agricultural economists based in rural and/or semi-rural communities); that is, that there should be free trade between countries – rather, this is a question of politics.
Systemically, it is an issue of agricultural land usage rights; after all, if farmers could diversify the use of their land, then they would no longer need subsidies (since their income stream would no longer be limited solely to farming) – hence, they are also tools of perpetuating political dependence. There is also the issue of food security but this is reflective of the prevailing war-ready/war-preparing psyche and artificially reduces the costs of going to war in the first place (an obvious cause for concern in the long-run). In this case, the criteria for elevating the political worth of a person boils down to voting rights, nationality, culture, ethnicity etc. rather than the simple fact of the personhood they are naturally endowed with.
Those who lobby government to redistribute wealth argue that it is unfair that people can be so privileged or downtrodden merely through birth. However, tariffs and subsidies are essentially income redistributions in at least three ways; firstly, from taxpayers (taxes fund subsidies), secondly, from consumers (tariffs make products more expensive and reduce a range of choice) and thirdly, from foreign producers (by making it infeasible for them to export and thereby make a living). Through capitalising on the shaky, divisive social construct of nationality and citizenship, protectionists have successfully increased tax revenue and subtly assaulted the intrinsic worth of human life. Is this redistribution of income really worth moral retrogression?