Policy Analysis No. 819

Doomed to Repeat It: The Long History of America’s Protectionist Failures

The recent rise in American economic nationalism has accompanied the view that past restrictions on foreign competition were successful in achieving stated policy objectives: decreased imports, increased jobs, industrial revival, open foreign markets, and economic prosperity more broadly. Politicians and pundits use such assertions to justify new nationalist economic proposals, but they ignore a vast repository of academic analyses and contemporaneous reporting that show that American trade protectionism—even in the periods most often cited as “successes”—not only has imposed immense economic costs on American consumers and the broader economy, but also has failed to achieve its primary policy aims and fostered political dysfunction along the way.

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.

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Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney, Cato Institute adjunct scholar, and adjunct professor at Duke University Law School.