Tariffs in United States history
According to Michael Lind, protectionism was America's de facto policy from the passage of the Tariff of 1816 to World War II, "switching to free trade only in 1945, when most of its industrial competitors had been wiped out" by the war. It has been argued that one of the underlying motivations for the American Revolution itself was a desire to industrialize, and reverse the trade deficit with Britain, which had grown by a factor of ten in the space of a few decades, from £67,000 (1721–30) to £739,000 (1761–70).
Paul Bairoch states that since the end of the 18th century, the United States has been "the homeland and bastion of modern protectionism". In fact, the United States never adhered to free trade until 1945. A protectionist policy was adopted during the presidency of George Washington by Alexander Hamilton, the first US Treasury Secretary. Hamilton wrote the Report on Manufactures, which called for customs barriers to allow American industrial development and to help protect infant industries, including bounties (subsidies) derived in part from those tariffs. This text was one of the references of the German economist Friedrich List (1789–1846). This policy remained throughout the 19th century and the overall level of tariffs was very high (close to 50% in 1830). The victory of the protectionist states of the North over the free trade southern states at the end of the Civil War (1861–1865) perpetuated this trend, even during periods of free trade in Europe (1860–1880).
Hamilton explained that despite an initial “increase of price” caused by regulations that control foreign competition, once a “domestic manufacture has attained to perfection… it invariably becomes cheaper.” George Washington signed the Tariff Act of 1789, making it the Republic's second ever piece of legislation. Increasing the domestic supply of manufactured goods, particularly war materials, was seen as an issue of national security. Washington and Hamilton believed that political independence was predicated upon economic independence.
In the 19th century, statesmen such as Senator Henry Clay continued Hamilton's themes within the Whig Party under the name "American System." The fledgling Republican Party led by Abraham Lincoln, who called himself a "Henry Clay tariff Whig", strongly opposed free trade, and implemented a 44-percent tariff during the Civil War—in part to pay for railroad subsidies and for the war effort, and to protect favored industries.
From 1871 to 1913, “the average U.S. tariff on dutiable imports never fell below 38 percent [and] gross national product (GNP) grew 4.3 percent annually, twice the pace in free trade Britain and well above the U.S. average in the 20th century,” notes Alfred Eckes Jr., chairman of the U.S. International Trade Commission under President Reagan.
In 1896, the GOP platform pledged to “renew and emphasize our allegiance to the policy of protection, as the bulwark of American industrial independence, and the foundation of development and prosperity. This true American policy taxes foreign products and encourages home industry. It puts the burden of revenue on foreign goods; it secures the American market for the American producer. It upholds the American standard of wages for the American workingman.”
Tariff and the Great Depression
Most economists hold the opinion that the tariff act did not greatly worsen the great depression:
Milton Friedman held the opinion that the Smoot–Hawley tariff of 1930 did not cause the Great Depression, instead he blamed the lack of sufficient action on the part of the Federal Reserve. Douglas A. Irwin wrote: "most economists, both liberal and conservative, doubt that Smoot–Hawley played much of a role in the subsequent contraction.".
Peter Temin, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained that a tariff is an expansionary policy, like a devaluation as it diverts demand from foreign to home producers. He noted that exports were 7 percent of GNP in 1929, they fell by 1.5 percent of 1929 GNP in the next two years and the fall was offset by the increase in domestic demand from tariff. He concluded that contrary the popular argument, contractionary effect of the tariff was small.
William Bernstein wrote "most economic historians now believe that only a minuscule part of that huge loss of both world GDP and the United States' GDP can be ascribed to the tariff wars "because trade was only nine percent of global output, not enough to account for the seventeen percent drop in GDP following the Crash. He thinks the damage done could not possibly have exceeded 2 percent of world GDP and tariff "didn't even significantly deepen the Great Depression." (A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World)
Nobel laureate Maurice Allais maintained that tariff was rather helpful in the face of deregulation of competition in the global labor market and excessively loose credit prior to the Crash which, according to him, caused the crisis in financial and banking sectors. He noted higher trade barriers were partly a means to protect domestic demand from deflation and external disturbances. He observes domestic production in the major industrialized countries fell faster than international trade contracted; if contraction of foreign trade had been the cause of the Depression, he argues, the opposite should have occurred. So, the decline in trade between 1929 and 1933 was a consequence of the Depression, not a cause. Most of the trade contraction took place between January 1930 and July 1932, before the introduction of the majority of protectionist measures, excepting limited American measures applied in the summer of 1930. It was the collapse of international liquidity that caused of the contraction of trade.