This paper surveys academic literature from three periods of American history: from the founding to the United States’ entry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947; from the GATT’s early years to the creation of its successor, the World Trade Organization (WTO), in 1995; and the current WTO era. These surveys show that, contrary to the fashionable rhetoric, American protectionism has repeatedly failed as an economic strategy.
A renewed focus on international trade’s disruptions to the U.S. economy, while worthwhile, has spawned troubling suggestions that the U.S. government should be more willing to experiment again with protectionism to help American workers and the economy. This paper should help to counter such ideas. History is replete with examples of the failure of American protectionism; unless our policymakers quickly relearn this history, we may be doomed to repeat it.