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Revisionist History?

Here’s a letter to a long-time correspondent who remains wholly convinced of the brilliance of Trumpian trade ‘theory.’

Mr. McKinney:

You describe my “refusal to accept tariffs as the leading reason for American economic expansion” in the 19th century as “a blatant example of revisionist history.”

Please re-read my post. Among the scholars quoted there are Nobel-laureate economist Douglass North writing in 1960, and Frank Taussig writing in 1888. A professor of economics at Harvard, Taussig was among the most prominent American mainstream economists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And Taussig’s book from which I quote – The Tariff History of the United States – has long been and remains a widely acclaimed classic. Although now very old, it will continue to stand – along with Douglas Irwin’s 2017 book, Clashing Over Commerce – as an indispensable history of U.S. trade policy.

Taussig (135 years ago) and Irwin (six years ago) – and North (63 years ago) – reject the notion that America’s economic growth in the 19th-century was furthered by trade restrictions. It’s possible that Taussig, Irwin, and North (and a slew of other trade scholars and economic historians) are wrong and that you and Curtis Ellis (and a slew of other economic nationalists) are right. But right or wrong, nothing about the rejection of the argument that America’s economic growth was caused by, or even furthered by, trade restrictions is “revisionist history.” Instead, it’s history that’s long-standing and scholarly – and that happens to reach objective conclusions that disrupt protectionists’ fantasies.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030