THE SHOE MANUFACTURERS are back, wringing their hands, weeping and calling piteously for protection from imports. They are forcing the first real test of President Carter's declared intentions to keep American markets open to world trade. If he imposes tariffs and quotas, the prices of many kinds of shoes will rise and the range of choice for consumers will shrink. When the shoe industry pressed this same claim a year ago, President Ford turned them down. Now, with a new administration in power, they are trying again. They've been back to the International Trade Commission - a weak agency, excessively responsive to the Senate Finance Committee - and the ITC recommended an awkward formula of quotas and higher tariffs. That recommendation now goes to the White House.
The issue casts a long shadow. How much responsibility does society have to preserve an individual citizen's job? How much of a cost can properly be put on consumers in general to save a specific factory? Is it right to save one person's job through public action that may also jeopardize the job of someone else? Perhaps you have never fully considered the philosophical implications of the shoe trade.
First, the trade-off in wages and subsidies: The ITC calculates that its tariff-and-quota proposal would create perhaps as many as 10,000 jobs in the U.S. shoe industry as the supply of imports dropped. The cost in higher prices to American consumers would be also according to the ITC, about $170 million a year. That works out to $17,000 a year per job - which, as it happens, is something over twice the average production worker's wages in the shoe industry. As a formula for protecting the nation's prosperity, that doesn't sound like much of a bargain.
Next, the trade-off in jobs: While the protectionism doubtless creates jobs in the shoe factories, it is equally likely to destroy jobs in the retail stores. Higher prices would mean fewer sales, which in turn would mean the closing of some stores. How many? It's hard to tell. But it's pretty clear that the ITC's tariffs and quotas would subtract jobs as well as add them.
Finally, the trade-off in trade: If the United States discirminates against other countries' sales here, we can expect them to discriminate against our exports. Tit for tat is the rule in world trade strategy. But it's not only that American exports represent American jobs. Economic quarrels pollute foreign policy. It's hard to make another country believe in your pledges of eternal friendship if, meanwhile, you're cutting off its access to the world's richest market. Italy, for example, is a major exporter of shoes to the United States. One of President Ford's reasons for turning down the shoe quotas a year ago was that Italy faced an election in June, and he didn't care to help the Communists win it.
The country owes generous compensation and adjustment assistance to working people whose jobs are hit by imports. It is not fair to load the price of economic growth and general prosperity onto a small number of people in hard-luck industries. But the country can't sensibly commit itself to propping up uncompetitive companies forever, at great cost, to preserve small numbers of badly paid jobs.
In the politics of protectionism, it is always the narrowest interest that is most vigorously represented. It is the threatened companies and unions that push hardest. The interests on the other side of the question are more diffused. In this whole angry process, the national interest is fully represented only at the White House - and that is where the process is now headed.