Katherine Mangu-Ward explains in a Reason column how tariffs end up punishing people who aren’t the targets of attack.

Sometimes, when the leaders of a foreign country do something very naughty, the other nations of the world get together and punish them. Assuming bombing isn’t on the menu, a popular way to administer a political spanking is to dramatically curtail the export of certain goods to the troublemakers. The thinking is that if you want your enemies to suffer, you should deny them the incredible gains in productivity and prosperity made possible by comparative advantage and division of labor operating on the global scale.

In other words, the penalty for behavior beyond the political pale—such as the development of a new nuclear arsenal, the use of chemical weapons, genocide, or widespread nationalization of industry—is to be cut off from trade. Slowing or eliminating the flow of cheap foreign raw materials, manufacturing equipment, and finished goods makes it harder and more expensive for a country’s domestic industries to function. …

… How odd, then, that protectionists seek to create the same conditions at home—artificial scarcity or elevated prices for certain imported goods—as a way to stimulate the domestic economy and punish our economic enemies. President Donald Trump and his anti-trade allies in the administration and on Capitol Hill are using the very same weapon they have been brandishing at Iran and Cuba to shoot ourselves in the foot when it comes to China.