Dartmouth economist Douglas Irwin has written a very long (832 pages in the print edition) and sometime tedious history of U.S. trade policy, but in many respects it is a tour de force. In a way he is writing American history through the lens of trade. His history starts with the economic impact of the French and Indian War’s (The Seven Years War globally) on Britain’s fiscal and colonial policy. The Boston Tea Party was the result. After independence and the chaos caused by the failed Articles of Confederation one of whose attributes were tariffs among the states a new constitution was written that centralized trade policy within the national government. In fact the second law enacted by the first Congress was a tariff. It was needed to fund the government. Thus Trade policy is as old as the Republic.
Irwin divides his history into three eras: tariffs for revenue (1789-1860), tariffs for restriction (1861- 1933) and tariffs for reciprocity (1934-Present?). Initially export oriented (cotton and tobacco) South favored low tariffs (for revenue only) and the North supported tariffs to restrict imports as well. Given that geography Democrats were for low tariffs and Whigs/Republicans were for high tariffs. By the late 20th century the two parties traded places with Republicans favoring open trade while the Democrats became far more restrictionist. Irwin tells his story by going into the details of all of the major congressional debates on tariff questions. Sometimes this is very interesting and sometimes it gets a bit tedious, but it is history in the making.
The first real battle over trade took place in the 1820s where the political genius of Henry Clay pushed through a restrictive tariff which both protected northern industry and raised revenue to fund internal improvements. That was his American System. By 1832 led by John C. Calhoun the South rose up in protest against what he called the Tariff of Abominations and introduced the doctrine of nullification. Irwin notes that the fight over the tariff became a proxy war over slavery. Nevertheless, with the Southern Democrats largely in control tariffs were largely used for revenue only prior to the civil war.
With the Republicans coming to power in 1861 the tariff was first used to raise revenue to fund the civil war and afterwards to restrict the entry of foreign goods into the United States. Irwin found no real evidence the high tariff policies of the Republicans promoted economic growth. This was due, in part, to the economy being wide open to immigration and technology transfers. It was also helpful that the U.S.’s leading trading partner was Britain which then had a zero tariff policy. It is unfortunate that Irwin did not note that the success of textile manufacturing in New England was due to stolen technology from Britain.
Although the Republicans were in the high tariff camp, both Presidents Garfield and McKinley in his second term were open to reciprocity. Unfortunately both were assassinated before they could implement their new ideas.
After growing unrest with the high tariff policies of the Republicans which were thought by the Democrats to promote monopoly and act as a tax on consumers, the new Wilson Administration moved swiftly to lower tariff. Irwin highlights how Wilson was very hands on in working with Congress to pass the Underwood Tariff which significantly lowered import duties. Something else was going on as well. The U.S. was becoming a major exporter of industrial goods. This was due to the discovery of huge iron deposits in the Mesabi Range of Minnesota which made the U.S. the world’s lowest cost producer of steel.
However after World War I and the Republicans returned to power tariffs were raised dramatically in 1923 with the Fordney-McCumber Tariff. That was followed by the Hawley-Smoot Tariff of 1930 which raised the already high tariffs by 15%. Irwin debunks the idea that the Hawley-Smoot Tariff caused the stock market crash and the depression. It did, however, exacerbate the global collapse of the early 1930s.
With the arrival of the Roosevelt Administration tariff policy takes a U-Turn. Secretary of State Cordell Hull established a policy of reciprocal trade, first with Latin America and then with the rest of the world. If anyone person is a hero in the book it is Cordell Hull. Under the leadership of state department official Will Clayton, the Truman Administration follows up deal by deal reciprocal trade agreements with broad multinational agreements(GATT now the WTO).
By the 1970s the parties traded places. The Republicans supporting trade in financial services and high technology products become free traders, while the labor oriented Democrats fearing the loss of union jobs become protectionists. Further the long free trade oriented South, switches sides as its textile manufacturing business come under stress. All of this came to a head with Democrat Bill Clinton supporting NAFTA against a majority of his party. NAFTA passed with Republican votes, but the fissures the battle engendered made Americans more suspicious of trade deals.
Those fears bore fruit with the leading Democratic candidates in 2016 opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership along with Donald Trump. Now with a protectionist in the White House and a protectionist Democratic Party it appears that the long era of reciprocal trade might be behind us. Irwin thinks there is too much momentum and it took the Civil War for policy to transition from revenue to restriction and it took the Great Depression to transition for restriction to reciprocity. My question is whether the Great Recession was another such trigger. I hope not.
In sum Irwin’s book is a long slog, but for those serious about how our trade policy came to be, it is well worth the effort.
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