The ugly tomatoes of protectionism

Today's Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor calls attention to a US Supreme Court decision rendered this day, May 10, 1893 in which tomatoes were upheld as a vegetable.

What exactly this topic has to do with writers is a bit of a mystery, although the narration treated it as a quaint issue of semantics over whether something with seeds should be considered a fruit or a vegetable. In fact, however, the case illustrates the ugly power of tariffs and an all-too-familiar example of the heavy-handed government interference with free trade, privileging one business over another to the detriment of consumers in general.

In the 1893 case of Nix v. Hedden, a family business run by John Nix and his three sons was engaged in importing tomatoes from the Caribbean into the US, and the case involved their protest over being charged a tariff of 10% levied against all imported vegetables.

Such tariffs are enacted to protect domestic growers who want to charge higher prices and don't want to have to compete in a free market, and who use the government to pass laws harming their potential competitors. As this case shows, those competitors are not always citizens of other countries but also US citizens who are trying to make a living, such as the Nix family who had the bright idea of importing tomatoes that would be less expensive than domestic tomatoes. We point this out not because we think it is ok to harm businessmen from other countries, but rather because the supporters of such tariffs usually bill them as a measure against "foreign competition," implying that they think using the law to prevent competition is just fine as long as it only hurts "foreigners."

The Nix family paid the 10% tariff on their shipments, under protest, and then appealed the case on the grounds that tomatoes were actually a fruit (which is true). The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that although tomatoes actually are a fruit under the botanical definition, "As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable" and, it was added, "not, like fruits generally, as dessert." Case closed, the tariff stands, and the Nix family has to pay extra money in order to make it impossible for them to sell foreign-grown tomatoes at a lower price.

The NPR narration of this ugly case completely glosses over the fact that one group is using the law to squash the livelihood of another group, and that consumers in general are the ones who end up suffering as well, since they have to pay the higher prices that result when competition is artificially blocked and less expensive sources are arbitrarily charged more because a product was more commonly used in a soup than in a dessert.

In fact, the narrator displays the common ignorance of free market principles often found on NPR* when he declares during his narrative that in this case "tomato growers had an interest in a tomato being declared a fruit" (at about 2:00 into the narrative). By saying this, Mr. Keillor has missed the point entirely! The tomato growers in the US had an interest in the tomato being declared a vegetable, so that they could be protected from outside competition from other growers: the tariff was enacted only on vegetables, and the Nixes wanted to prove the tomato a fruit so that they could import tomatoes from the Caribbean into the US to compete on price.

This may seem like a funny little sidelight of history with an amusing angle on vocabulary, but it is actually yet another example of the damaging effect of government barriers on free trade (which are almost always erected in order to artificially protect one group from competition).

We have written about the damaging impact of such intervention before, including the ongoing tariffs on imported sugar, which keep sugar prices in the US artificially high and have led to the proliferation of high fructose corn sweetener in items that used to be sweetened with sugar, as well as the protectionist policies that kept foreign ships from helping in the cleanup after the Gulf oil spill last year.

We'd like to suggest that such policies deserve the proverbial shower of tomatoes that were thrown at awful stage performances during the 1890s, when Nix v. Hedden was taking place.

* For other examples supporting the allegation of general ignorance of economic principles on NPR, see also:
"There are some things that are just too important to be left to the free market?"

"Air Vulgaria"

"What Rube Goldberg could teach us about economics"

"Banker calls for a 'New Capitalism'"


"Government interference, unintended consequences, and Wall Street bonuses"