The secret history of tariffs

President Trump’s announcement that he is imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imports has aroused little enthusiasm and much criticism.

It has also prompted free-trade-minded Republicans in Congress to propose repealing Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which delegates to the president the power to adjust trade restrictions and impose tariffs.

Trump’s move is widely depicted as a departure from the free-trade policies pursued by every administration since World War II. But a perusal of Dartmouth economist Douglas Irwin’s history of American trade policy, “Clashing Over Commerce,” reveals that his move is not all that different from what other postwar presidents have done — and that free traders might be sorry if Congress actually were to repeal Section 232.

Tariffs, it is often said, have been one of the bases of American economic policy since the days of Alexander Hamilton. That’s an exaggeration, argues Irwin, but they were the major revenue source for the early republic’s pint-sized federal government.

Irwin’s second major point is that tariffs haven’t been changed very often. A rise in tariffs rankled Southern cotton producers in the 1820s, and South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun, the then-vice president, penned an argument that states could nullify federal laws. President Andrew Jackson sent troops to the state’s borders, and the state backed down, at which point Jackson and Congress lowered tariffs.

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