Clashing over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy

University of Chicago Press
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Should the United States be open to commerce with other countries, or should it protect domestic industries from foreign competition? This question has been the source of bitter political conflict throughout American history. Such conflict was inevitable, James Madison argued in The Federalist Papers, because trade policy involves clashing economic interests. The struggle between the winners and losers from trade has always been fierce because dollars and jobs are at stake: depending on what policy is chosen, some industries, farmers, and workers will prosper, while others will suffer.

Douglas A. Irwin’s Clashing over Commerce is the most authoritative and comprehensive history of US trade policy to date, offering a clear picture of the various economic and political forces that have shaped it. From the start, trade policy divided the nation—first when Thomas Jefferson declared an embargo on all foreign trade and then when South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union over excessive taxes on imports. The Civil War saw a shift toward protectionism, which then came under constant political attack. Then, controversy over the Smoot-Hawley tariff during the Great Depression led to a policy shift toward freer trade, involving trade agreements that eventually produced the World Trade Organization. Irwin makes sense of this turbulent history by showing how different economic interests tend to be grouped geographically, meaning that every proposed policy change found ready champions and opponents in Congress.

As the Trump administration considers making major changes to US trade policy, Irwin’s sweeping historical perspective helps illuminate the current debate. Deeply researched and rich with insight and detail, Clashing over Commerce provides valuable and enduring insights into US trade policy past and present.
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About the author

Douglas A. Irwin is the John Sloan Dickey Third Century Professor in the Social Sciences in the Department of Economics at Dartmouth College. He is a research associate of the NBER.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Nov 29, 2017
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Pages
832
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ISBN
9780226399010
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Language
English
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Genres
Business & Economics / Economic History
Business & Economics / Economics / Macroeconomics
Business & Economics / General
Business & Economics / International / General
Political Science / Public Policy / Economic Policy
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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The Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, which raised U.S. duties on hundreds of imported goods to record levels, is America's most infamous trade law. It is often associated with--and sometimes blamed for--the onset of the Great Depression, the collapse of world trade, and the global spread of protectionism in the 1930s. Even today, the ghosts of congressmen Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley haunt anyone arguing for higher trade barriers; almost single-handedly, they made protectionism an insult rather than a compliment. In Peddling Protectionism, Douglas Irwin provides the first comprehensive history of the causes and effects of this notorious measure, explaining why it largely deserves its reputation for combining bad politics and bad economics and harming the U.S. and world economies during the Depression.

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Featuring a new preface by the author, Peddling Protectionism tells a fascinating story filled with valuable lessons for trade policy today.

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The Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, which raised U.S. duties on hundreds of imported goods to record levels, is America's most infamous trade law. It is often associated with--and sometimes blamed for--the onset of the Great Depression, the collapse of world trade, and the global spread of protectionism in the 1930s. Even today, the ghosts of congressmen Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley haunt anyone arguing for higher trade barriers; almost single-handedly, they made protectionism an insult rather than a compliment. In Peddling Protectionism, Douglas Irwin provides the first comprehensive history of the causes and effects of this notorious measure, explaining why it largely deserves its reputation for combining bad politics and bad economics and harming the U.S. and world economies during the Depression.

In four brief, clear chapters, Irwin presents an authoritative account of the politics behind Smoot-Hawley, its economic consequences, the foreign reaction it provoked, and its aftermath and legacy. Starting as a Republican ploy to win the farm vote in the 1928 election by increasing duties on agricultural imports, the tariff quickly grew into a logrolling, pork barrel free-for-all in which duties were increased all around, regardless of the interests of consumers and exporters. After Herbert Hoover signed the bill, U.S. imports fell sharply and other countries retaliated by increasing tariffs on American goods, leading U.S. exports to shrivel as well. While Smoot-Hawley was hardly responsible for the Great Depression, Irwin argues, it contributed to a decline in world trade and provoked discrimination against U.S. exports that lasted decades.

Featuring a new preface by the author, Peddling Protectionism tells a fascinating story filled with valuable lessons for trade policy today.

The recent economic crisis--with the plunge in the stock market, numerous bank failures and widespread financial distress, declining output and rising unemployment--has been reminiscent of the Great Depression. The Depression of the 1930s was marked by the spread of protectionist trade policies, which contributed to a collapse in world trade. Although policymakers today claim that they will resist the protectionist temptation, recessions are breeding grounds for economic nationalism, and countries may yet consider imposing higher trade barriers. In Trade Policy Disaster, Douglas Irwin examines what we know about trade policy during the traumatic decade of the 1930s and considers what we can learn from the policy missteps of the time.

Irwin argues that the extreme protectionism of the 1930s emerged as a consequence of policymakers' reluctance to abandon the gold standard and allow their currencies to depreciate. By ruling out exchange rate changes as an adjustment mechanism, policymakers turned instead to higher tariffs and other means of restricting imports. He offers a clear and concise exposition of such topics as the effect of higher trade barriers on the implosion of world trade; the impact of the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930; the reasons some countries adopted draconian trade restrictions (including exchange controls and import quotas) but others did not; the effect of preferential trade arrangements and bilateral clearing agreements on the multilateral system of world trade; and lessons for avoiding future trade wars.

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