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.
Protectionism’s first American theorist was Alexander Hamilton—the man on the $10 bill, the first Treasury Secretary, and America’s first technocrat. As aide-de-camp to General Washington during the Revolution, he had seen the U.S. nearly lose due to its lack of capacity to manufacture weapons. (France rescued us with 80,000 muskets and other war materiel.) He worried that Britain’s lead in manufacturing would remain entrenched, condemning the United States to being a producer of agricultural products and raw materials. In modern terms, a banana republic. As he put it in 1791:
The superiority antecedently enjoyed by nations who have preoccupied and perfected a branch of industry, constitutes a more formidable obstacle than either of those which have been mentioned, to the introduction of the same branch into a country in which it did not before exist. To maintain, between the recent establishments of one country, and the long-matured establishments of another country, a competition upon equal terms, both as to quality and price, is, in most cases, impracticable. The disparity, in the one, or in the other, or in both, must necessarily be so considerable, as to forbid a successful rivalship, without the extraordinary aid and protection of government.
Hamilton’s policies came down to about a dozen key measures. In his own words:
1. “Protecting duties.” (Tariffs.)
2. “Prohibition of rival articles or duties equivalent to prohibitions.” (Outright import bans.)
3. “Prohibition of the exportation of the materials of manufactures.” (Export bans on raw materials needed for industrialization here at home.)
4. “Pecuniary bounties.” (Export subsidies, like those provided today by the Export-Import Bank and other programs.)
5. “Premiums.” (Subsidies for key innovations. Today, we would call them research and development tax credits.)
6. “The exemption of the materials of manufactures from duty.” (Import liberalization for industrial inputs, so some other country can be the raw materials exporter and we can industrialize.)
7. “Drawbacks of the duties which are imposed on the materials of manufactures.” (Same idea, by means of tax rebates.)
8. “The encouragement of new inventions and discoveries at home, and of the introduction into the United States of such as may have been made in other countries; particularly those, which relate to machinery.” (Prizes for inventions and, more importantly, patents.)
9. “Judicious regulations for the inspection of manufactured commodities.” (Regulation of product standards, as the USDA and FDA do today.)
10. “The facilitating of pecuniary remittances from place to place.” (A sophisticated financial system.)
11. “The facilitating of the transportation of commodities.” (Good infrastructure.)
Hamilton set forth his case in his Report on Manufactures, submitted to Congress in 1791. Perhaps the most startling thing about his suggested policies is how modern they are: few people realize that the R&D tax credit was first proposed in 1791!
Due in large part to the domination of Congress by Southern planters, who favored free trade, Hamilton’s policies were not all adopted right away. It took the War of 1812, which created a surge of anti-British feeling, disrupted normal trade, and drastically increased the government’s need for revenue, to push America firmly into the protectionist camp. But when war broke out, Congress immediately doubled the tariff to an average of 25 percent. After the war, British manufacturers undertook one of the world’s first cases of predatory dumping, whose purpose was, in the words of one Member of Parliament, to “stifle in the cradle, those rising manufactures in the United States, which the war had forced into existence.” In reaction, the American industrial interests that had blossomed because of the tariff lobbied to keep it, and had it raised to 35 percent in 1816. The public approved, and by 1820, America’s average tariff was up to 40 percent.
Fast-forward a few years. Gloss over a number of important tariff-related political struggles, such as the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of 1832, one of the precursors of the Civil War, in which South Carolina tried to reject a federal tariff. There was a brief free trade episode starting in 1846, coinciding with the aforementioned zenith of classical liberalism in Europe, during which America’s tariffs were lowered. But this was followed by a series of recessions, ending in the Panic of 1857, which brought demands for a higher tariff so intense that President James Buchanan—the last free-trade president for two generations—gave in and signed one two days before Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861.
Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and most of the other great names from American history were protectionists. Protectionism was, in fact, Lincoln’s number two issue after slavery. As he put it in 1847,
Give us a protective tariff, and we will have the greatest nation on earth.
Revealingly, the only major exception to America’s protectionist consensus was the antebellum South, because free trade is the ideal policy for an agricultural slave state. An economy founded on slave-based agriculture has no hope of achieving competitive advantage in anything else, as slaves have proven unsuitable for industrialization since the time of Ancient Rome. Because the tariff was the main source of federal revenue in those pre-income tax days, the South also bore a disproportionate share of the nation’s tax burden. No wonder it was in favor of free trade—which the Confederate constitution eventually mandated.
Back when protectionism was American policy, it enjoyed a broad popular consensus. Only the left- and right-wing extremists of the day dissented. Extreme right-wing Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner—who published a fuming book in 1885 entitled Protectionism, the Ism That Teaches That Waste Makes Wealth—saw protectionism as a subsidy for the incompetent and an interference with the divine justice of the free market and the survival of the fittest. At the other extreme, Karl Marx, who was alive in those days and keenly watching American capitalism, wanted to see American capitalism break down and therefore favored free trade for its destructive potential.
Unfortunately for Marx, this was the golden age of American industry, when America’s economic performance surpassed the rest of the world by the greatest margin. It was the era in which the U.S. transformed itself from a promising, mostly agricultural backwater, pupil at the knee of European industry, into the greatest economic power in the history of the world.
What happened to America’s long protectionist tradition? In the end, America only seriously turned away from protectionism as a Cold War gambit to prop up capitalist economies abroad and tie them to the U.S. Geopolitics trumped domestic economics.
Ironically, our old protectionist playbook for economic development is the same one, in many respects, that China and other nations are using against the United States today. Back when we were the ascending economic power in the late 19th century, it was Britain that complained about “unfair trade!” They were right, of course—but given that nobody forced free trade upon them, it was their own fault. Today, having forgotten our own history, we can’t even recognize the game being played against us, let alone figure out how to counter it. We will continue to pay a high price in lost jobs and declining industries until we wise up.
Ian Fletcher is the author of Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why (USBIC, 2010, $24.95) An Adjunct Fellow at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a Washington think tank founded in 1933, he was previously an economist in private practice, mostly serving hedge funds and private equity firms. He may be contacted at email@example.com.