Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Douglas Irwin on Peddling Protectionism: A Review Essay

Academic journal article History of Economics Review

Douglas Irwin on Peddling Protectionism: A Review Essay

Article excerpt

Abstract: The narrative that follows is a review essay of Douglas A. Irwin's Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression (2011). Although no attempt is made to review the literature devoted to modern trade policy in a systematic fashion, Irwin's book is placed in recent historical and intellectual context. One chief finding is that Irwin's research agenda is, in part, a product of a larger intellectual project led by Jagdish Bhagwati in which the case for free trade is further advanced on the grounds that commercial policy is often designed for the benefit of the few rather than the many. Another chief finding is that Irwin's account of the Smoot-Hawley tariff is sufficiently comprehensive, if not definitive, that there is a danger that his account will completely displace the earlier major tract devoted to this episode, namely, Elmar Eric Schattschneider's Politics, Pressure and the Tariff (1935). It is argued that Schattschneider's 1935 account of the Smoot-Hawley tariff constitutes an important contribution to the economics of pressure group activity and is systematically misrepresented in the secondary literature.

'... free trade is not passe, but it is an idea that has irretrievably lost its innocence. Its status has shifted from optimum to reasonable rule of thumb'

P. Krugman (1987): 132.

1 Introduction

Douglas A. Irwin, a Dartmouth Professor of economics, is a prolific author of scholarly books relating to the intellectual history of trade, particularly the history of the theoretical and policy debates underpinning the near metronomic dispositional swing between protectionism and free trade through historical time. The publications bearing his name are invariably issued via senior university presses and include Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade (Princeton 1996), The Genesis of Gatt (CUP 2008 and co-authored), Free Trade Under Fire (Princeton 2009) and now Peddling Protectionism: Smoot-Hawley and the Great Depression (Princeton 2011). Indeed, I see from the latest intelligence coming over the wire that there is yet another issue in this line: Trade Policy Disaster: Lessons from the 1930s (MIT 2012).' This frightening fecundity further manifests itself in a parade of articles in both mainstream and economic history journals--from the American Economic Review to the Journal of Economic History--but not, to my knowledge, in the history of economic thought journals. These articles are invariably finessed by carefully estimated parameters, a feature of the economic history journals that is now as American as white teeth, and, like uniform white teeth, a feature that has become ubiquitous across a wider Western world that strives to conform to twentieth-century American culture and science, while hypocritically deriding these products whenever the chance presents itself. Such technical papers demonstrate that Irwin is as comfortable with drawing down the capital from his North American PhD (and thereby signalling that he is a very model of a modern major economist) as he is with writing the clean prose of the better cut of historical narrative. He is the sort of fellow who is interviewed for the Economist and has an occasional 'Op-ed' spot with the Wall Street Journal. I dare say that he is a public intellectual of sorts.

Irwin's Peddling Protectionism is a relatively slim volume, since, though it unfolds over 242 pages, the font sitting on Princeton's acid-free paper is quite large, and it is octavo paper at that. It nonetheless warrants a review of length for three main reasons. First, it is representative of, and interconnected with, Irwin's substantial body of work to date. Second, the formation of the Smoot-Hawley tariff was first modelled in 1935 by Elmar Eric Schattschneider in Politics, Pressure and the Tariff, the importance of which seems to have bypassed historians of economic thought and the contents of which need to be compared with Irwin's findings. …

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