I was hoping to spend some time tallying the U.S.’s global trade results for 2017, but then this popped up and I just can’t let it pass. Actually, I was wondering when the free trade globalists would dredge up the subject of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, blaming it for the Great Depression, as they usually do. But the writer of the above linked article, in an apparent attempt to ratchet up fears of a trade war, goes a step further and blames Smoot-Hawley for World War II!
She begins by creating the impression that Smoot-Hawley was an opening salvo in a trade war in the 1930s. She either doesn’t have a clue, or is intentionally trying to mislead her readers. Let’s get some facts straight. First of all, the use of tariffs was standard trade policy for the United States since its founding. In fact, until 1913, there was no need for an income tax in the U.S. because all federal revenue was derived from tariffs. The Smoot Hawley Act was nothing more than a minor tweak of tariff rates that had been in effect since the Fordney-McCumber Act of 1922. It increased tariffs on average by 2.7%. It changed the tariff basis from an ad valorem (percentage) basis to a fixed dollar basis which, under normal circumstances, would actually have slowly reduced tariffs as inflation eroded the value of the tariff. But, of course, the Great Depression resulted in a protracted term of deflation instead of inflation.
Blaming Smoot-Hawley for the Great Depression is bad enough. Not only was the change in tariff rates minuscule, but it wasn’t enacted until June of 1930, a year-and-a-half after the stock market crash of 1929 which actually precipitated the Great Depression. And at the height of the Great Depression in 1933 when GDP (gross domestic product) had fallen by 33%, or $33.1 billion from its 1929 level, the total value of imports and exports had declined by only $6.5 billion. It was actually the Great Depression that caused the drop in trade, and not the other way around, just as the “Great Recession” that began in 2008 resulted in a sharp decline in trade.
To blame Smoot-Hawley or a “trade war” that didn’t even exist for World War II is truly outrageous. It was actually the aftermath of World War I and the severe war reparations that were imposed on Germany, resulting in soaring inflation and unemployment, that fostered Hitler’s rise to power. And that just happened to coincide with the growing aggressiveness of imperialist Japan. Trade had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Sure, the world made a turn toward free trade following the war with the signing of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1947, but it wasn’t because anyone blamed a “trade war” for causing World War II. It was because economists, eager to try out the concept of free trade, successfully (but disingenuously) blamed tariffs for the Great Depression and made an argument that the interdependence that would come with free trade could preclude any future world wars.
Actually, if one were to be honest, free trade and the enormous global trade imbalances it has fostered is directly responsible for our current trade tensions. We need to restore balance to global trade through the use of tariffs or quotas before things get any worse.