Contemporary American politics is conducted in the shadow of historical myths that inform our present-day choices. Unfortunately, these myths sometimes lead us terribly astray. Case in point is the popular idea that America’s economic tradition has been economic liberty, laissez faire, and wide-open cowboy capitalism. This notion sounds obvious, and it fits the image of this country held by both the Right, which celebrates this tradition, and the Left, which bemoans it. And it seems to imply, among other things, that free trade is the American Way. Don’t Tread On Me or my right to import.
It is, in fact, very easy to construct an impressive-sounding defense of free trade as a form of economic liberty on the basis of this myth. Unfortunately, this myth is just that: a myth, not real history. The reality is that all four of the presidents on Mount Rushmore were protectionists. (Even the pseudo-libertarian Jefferson came around after the War of 1812.) Historically, protectionism has been, in fact, the real American Way.
This pattern even predates American independence. During the colonial period, the British government tried to force its American colonies to become suppliers of raw materials to the nascent British industrial machine while denying them any manufacturing industry of their own. The colonies were, in fact, the single biggest victim of British trade policy, being under Britain’s direct political control, unlike its other trading partners. The British knew exactly what they were doing: they were happy to see America thrive, but only as a cog in their own industrial machine. As former Prime Minster William Pitt, otherwise a famous conciliator of American grievances and the namesake of Pittsburgh, once said in Parliament,
“If the Americans should manufacture a lock of wool or a horse shoe, I would fill their ports with ships and their towns with troops.”
Thus the American Revolution was to some extent a war over industrial policy, in which the commercial elite of the colonies revolted against being forced into an inferior role in the emerging Atlantic economy. This is one of the things that gave the American Revolution its exceptionally bourgeois character as revolutions go, with bewigged Founding Fathers rather than the usual unshaven revolutionary mobs.
It is no accident that after independence, a tariff was the very second bill signed by President Washington. It is also no accident that the Constitution—which notoriously does not authorize a great many things our government does today— explicitly does give Congress the authority “to regulate commerce with foreign nations.” (Article I, Section 8.) This fact drives flag-draped libertarians crazy, but there it is.