In my latest reading of The Great Betrayal: How American Sovereignty and Social Justice Are Being Sacrificed to the Gods of the Global Economy, Pat Buchanan argues that the time when the United States was protectionist—-the late 1860’s to 1900—-was a time of economic growth, a reduction in the national debt, a fall in commodity prices, a rise in real wages, a growth in exports, and an increase in industrial production that rivaled that of Great Britain. As sources, Buchanan cites Ravi Batra’s The Myth of Free Trade, Alfred Eckes, Jr.’s Opening America’s Market, and John Steele Gordon’s Hamilton’s Blessing, but, for his claim regarding the increase in the Gross Domestic Product and real wages, he mentions the Historical Statistics of the United States.
Moreover, when Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge restored protectionism, Buchanan contends, there was an increase in manufacturing output, and taxes on Americans were reduced, even as revenue increased. Buchanan also notes that the distribution of the tax burden became more progressive in the 1920’s. Buchanan cites the book Nation of Nations, David Alderoft’s From Versailles to Wall Street, 1919-1929, and Gordon’s Hamilton’s Blessing.
I decided to take a second look at how Edward Gresser—-a proponent of free trade—-discusses these time periods in his book, Freedom from Want. As far as I could see, Gresser does not interact with the statistics that Buchanan cites. Rather, Gresser quotes critics of protectionism during the nineteenth century, who held that high tariffs penalized the poor and southern farmers on account of high prices (in the case of small farmers, the high prices were for machinery that they needed), and he says that Harding’s protectionism left America’s World War I allies in a state of economic wreck after the war, which Gresser seems to think was rather cold on his part.
One point that Gresser makes in his book is that free trade helps poorer nations, such as Cambodia. Buchanan states regarding the protectionist President William McKinley, however, that McKinley did not write his tariff bill to prosper South America (an area that someone back then brought up), for the U.S. was his concern, not the rest of the world (page 214). I find that sentiment to be rather cold, to tell you the truth. But I still think that Buchanan’s argument about economic growth coinciding with protectionism deserves serious consideration.