On ‘Making Things’

Lumber is offered for sale at a home improvement store. Turning trees into lumber is considered manufacturing, but logging isn’t. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Hang around the policy game long enough, and you’ll encounter the argument that government should use tariffs, subsidies, “Buy American” rules, and related policies to protect and expand the U.S. manufacturing sector because it’s special, both economically and in the eyes of the average American voter. 

In recent weeks, for example, American Compass’ Oren Cass justified Trump-style tariffs because, in his words, “making things matters”—a slogan he repeated when unveiling new (and expressly anti-globalization) polling from his organization showing that Americans overwhelmingly “agree that ‘we need a stronger manufacturing sector.’” Usual tariff and push-poll concerns aside, this sloganeering is nothing new for Cass and certainly not limited to him or other protectionists on the American right. In fact, given the 2024 presidential election, its increasingly certain (alas) participants, and recent U.S. policy history, you can bet that proactively reviving American manufacturing will be a top issue. And protectionists will frequently base their demands on the simple and unstated assumption that the sector has long been a shambles, and that the production of tangible “things” deserves extra government attention.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the issue isn’t so simple.

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