C. Donald Johnson – The Wealth of a Nation: A History of Trade Politics in America

C. Donald Johnson – The Wealth of a Nation: A History of Trade Politics in America

Doug Irwin’s Clashing Over Commerce is the gold standard for U.S. trade histories, so Johnson is easily forgiven for not equaling it. While he doesn’t have Irwin’s command of economic theory or larger themes, Johnson does have a good eye for politics. This makes sense, as his political career has taken him from a House committee staffer to a member of Congress (a moderate Georgia Democrat, he voted in favor of NAFTA), to part of the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

Johnson’s history starts when the country does, and he hits the usual notes. Johnson covers the Madison-Hamilton debate and Hamilton’s American System proposal, Thomas Jefferson’s failed experiment in protectionism against Britain, the 1828 Tariff of Abominations, how northern industrial interests’ protectionism added to southern agricultural resentment in the Civil War buildup (slavery was far and away more important, but tariffs were also part of the story), right on up to the 1920s Fordney-McCumber tariff and the infamous 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariff that worsened the Great Depression.

As with Irwin’s history, this is where FDR’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull comes across as an unlikely free-market hero. He understood all the usual economic arguments for free trade, but he pushed especially hard for free trade as a policy of peace. That he did so during the 1930s buildup to World War II was especially courageous. The old argument that killing the customer is bad for business goes as far back as Montesquieu, whose Spirit of Laws predates Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations by a generation. Hull stood out in his ardor, his prominent political position, and his time in history in the importance of his trade advocacy.

After World War II, Hull played a major role in building the international infrastructure that served to drastically lower tariffs around the world over the last 75 years, until the current administration.

Johnson played a small role in this process beginning in the 1970s, and this is where his history’s comparative advantage comes out. He has personal knowledge of the political dynamics of the time, and a specialist’s knowledge of textile policy, which was one of the most contentious areas of post-war trade policy until the Multi-Fibre Arrangment (MFA) was finally ditched in 1995 as part of the WTO’s creation. He has also done a great deal of work on labor provisions in trade agreements. I part company with him on his policy preferences in both of these areas, but his knowledge of both policy details and the political process is valuable.


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