Protectionism did not cause the depression. Indeed, moderate protection is what we needby Ha-Joon Chang / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
Smoot and Hawley (left) in 1929: don’t blame us, we didn’t cause the depression
Three sacred cows have dominated the market fundamentalist religion of the last 25 years: balanced budgets, private ownership and free trade. Two have recently been sacrificed to reality. Balanced budgets went first, as countries dived into deficit spending without debate to fend off the recession. Belief in private ownership is faltering too, as country after country nationalises its banks.
Faith in free trade, however, is holding out, just about. The major economies are slowly but surely raising protectionist barriers through subsidies and local procurement programmes, yet free-market economists warn us that any moves to protectionism will trigger a trade war, and destroy the world trading system, as happened in the 1930s.
This is a misreading of history. The depression-era shift to protectionism was much less dramatic than is often claimed. The conventional story says that the world trading system collapsed because the US introduced the Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930. But this was not a radical shift in policy. America had been the most protectionist country in the world for the previous century, while Smoot-Hawley (above) only raised average industrial tariffs from about 37 per cent to about 48 per cent, well within the historical range of US tariffs until then. Tariffs in other countries did rise after 1930, but only moderately, and economic historians have shown that trade shrinkage after the depression had more to do with shrinking demand and the drying-up of trade credits.
Of course, an all-out trade war would not help the world economy recover. Thankfully, at least in the short run, there is no danger of such a thing happening. Unlike in the 1930s, we have the World Trade Organisation, the EU and many regional trade agreements to limit the protections that countries can deploy. Countries will cheat within the boundaries of these agreements, but they can do only so much.
Moreover, the “1930s: never again” story assumes that protectionism is always bad. But this is not true either. Unlike in finance, where things can be speedily re-arranged, the real economy takes time to adjust. Producers must build new factories, and invest in new technologies. Workers must acquire new skills and find new jobs. When big adjustments are needed, temporary protectionism helps to create the breathing space for companies and workers to reinvent themselves.
There are other good reasons to consider limited…