Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 14: AMERICAN TARIFF HISTORY - Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems
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CHAPTER 14: AMERICAN TARIFF HISTORY - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems 
Economics, vol. 2: Modern Economic Problems, 2nd edition, revised (New York: The Century Co., 1923).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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AMERICAN TARIFF HISTORY
§ 1. Political and trade boundaries. § 2. Prevalence of protective tariffs. § 3. Specific and ad valorem rates. § 4. Some technical features of the tariff. § 5. The tariff, 1789-1815. § 6. The tariff, 1816-1845. § 7. The tariff, 1846-1860. § 8. The tariff, 1861-1871. § 9. The tariff, 1872-1889. § 10. The tariff, 1890-1896. § 11. The Dingley tariff, 1897-1909. § 12. Sentiment favoring lower rates, 1908. § 13. The Payne-Aldrich tariff, 1909-1913. § 14. The Underwood tariff, 1913. § 15. Operation of the tariff, 1913-1921. § 16. The return to high tariff, 1921.
§ 1. Political and trade boundaries. By international trade is meant, in general, trade between persons resident in different countries; comparatively rare is the case in which one of the two parties to a trade is a whole nation acting through its government as a unit (e. g., in the purchase of munitions of war in neutral countries). Outside of a communistic group such as the family, trade is a necessary accompaniment of division of labor. As territorial division of labor began between neighboring tribes,1 international trade was the earliest kind of regular interchange of goods. Indeed, the very word “market” meant originally the boundary between tribes. Thus, from primitive times when wandering savages gave bits of flint or copper in return for salt or fish, individuals have sought to adjust their goods to their desires through trade with men of other political groups. With the progress of the world in the means of communication and transportation, international trade has widened in extent and grown in volume.
Economic relations never have been coextensive with political relations. The economic groupings of men connected by a network of trades never have and never will correspond very nearly with political groupings of men bound together by common citizenship in particular states. Indeed, it is not uncommon for many of the residents in two adjoining states to trade far more with each other than they do with their own fellow citizens. Lawmakers and rulers from the beginnings of formal governments have constantly tried to hinder this kind of trade. They have done this chiefly because of their belief that they could strengthen their states in political and economic ways, and could favor some of their citizens, by confining economic relations within political boundaries—if not exclusively, more closely than when trade was left to take its natural course, guided by individual motives. The regulation of international trade, therefore, has always constituted an economic problem of great importance in the field of political action.
§ 2. Prevalence of protective tariffs. For a century and a half most serious students of economics have favored a larger measure of freedom, if not absolute freedom, in foreign trade. But the actual practice of most nations has never been in accord with the principles laid down by the philosophers. Great Britain alone among the larger countries has, since 1846, steadily pursued a low-tariff policy for revenue only, and her example has been most nearly followed by Holland and Denmark. Germany, which had always had restrictive duties, adopted still more protective measures under Bismarck in 1879. France, Italy, and most of the other nations of Europe have strong protective tariffs. The United States has followed a restrictive policy since near the beginning of the last century. The explanation of this contradiction between precept and practice is not entirely simple. Great interests are affected by foreign trade, and certain of these interests are able to influence opinion and to dominate legislation. Free trade is not the most desirable thing for every one. The general policy of free trade between nations, as advocated by most economists since Adam Smith, has usually been rejected by the people and the legislators.
In its details American policy in tariff legislation under the Constitution has been varied and vacillating. The changes have been determined in most cases by motives of temporary partizan advantage or by the political activity of the immediate beneficiaries rather than by clear knowledge and consistent purpose of the electorate as a whole. Thus its lessons for the student are largely of a negative nature, but they well repay serious study.
§ 3. Specific and ad valorem rates. Before entering upon the history of the American policy let us make clear the meaning of certain technical terms and explain certain methods that are frequently referred to.
Rates (and duties) may be either specific or ad valorem. Specific duties are those that are calculated and levied according to some physical test, as so much per pound, per yard, per hundred-weight, or per ton. Ad valorem duties are those that are calculated and levied according to the value of the goods (usually as it was at the place of shipment), determined by an assessor, by invoice of sale, by statement of the importer under oath, etc. The actual duty collected on any article may result from various combinations of the two rates (as, to take an actual example, $4.50 a pound and 25 per cent ad valorem on cigars and cigarettes) or ad valorem with a minimum valuation so that on the cheaper goods the rate is specific.
Specific rates are more easily applied in administration, not offering the temptation to undervaluation and misrepresentation that ad valorem rates do; on the other hand, specific rates do not adjust themselves to price changes as ad valorem rates do. If the prices of goods go up the specific rate is relatively less and affords less of “protection” to the domestic producer; whereas if prices go down (as, in general trend, the prices of manufactured goods have done most of the time) the specific duties are relatively greater. To take a historical example, the specific rate of 6¼ cents a yard on cotton goods in 1816, which was at first in fact only about 25 per cent, within a few years became about 75 per cent and absolutely prohibitive. For this reason specific rates have most often been used in acts intended to increase the “protective” duties and often as a device for immediately raising rates; while ad valorem rates have been more often used in acts prompted by the desire for less drastic exclusion and for a more adequate revenue; but there is no essential connection between the protective policy and specific rates. Indeed, in the period from 1897 to 1909, when most prices were rising, many of the specific rates under the Dingley Act, intended to be strongly protective, afforded less and less “protection.”2
§ 4. Some technical features of the tariff. All goods not subject to duties are said to be on the free list. It is customary to group articles in schedules, of which there are fourteen in the law of 1913, designated from A to N (for chemicals, pottery, metals, wood, etc.), but the rates are not uniform for all the articles in each schedule. Drawbacks are a certain amount, the whole or a part, of the duties that have been paid on imported commodities, which is paid back by the government on the reëxportation of the goods. Compensatory duties (or compensatory rates) are those levied on certain manufactured articles with the purpose of raising their price as much as domestic producers’ costs are raised by a tariff on their raw materials. Examples are a duty on woolen goods to offset a duty on wool, or a duty on shoes to offset one on hides. They may be intended to be partial or complete or more than sufficient, and are likely in any case to work either more or less to the advantage of the domestic producer than was intended. It may be that the conditions of supply are such that the home price of the raw materials is raised little or none by the tariff, while the price of the finished product is considerably raised, or vice versa.
§ 5. The tariff, 1789-1815. The main difficulty of government in 1781-1789 under the Articles of Confederation was lack of the power to obtain revenues by taxation. The separate states alone could levy duties, and a good many tariff restrictions on freedom of trade among them developed in this period. The Constitution established the principle of entire freedom of trade among the states. The first act of Congress under the Constitution levied a tariff, primarily for revenue purposes, but clearly having a protective purpose in the view of some of the representatives. However, most of the separate rates, as well as the general average rate, were the lowest ever levied by Congress, except that there was no free list and that 5 per cent was imposed upon all goods not otherwise enumerated. Ad valorem duties up to a maximum of 15 per cent (that on carriages) were laid upon certain. articles of luxury, and low specific duties on a few articles such as glass, nails, iron manufactures, hemp, and cordage.
From 1789 until 1812, thirteen tariff laws, all told, were passed. One after another many rates were raised to get larger revenues, but some goods were put upon the free list. The foreign trade, in both imports and exports, grew largely and with considerable regularity, rising then rapidly to a maximum in 1807. Then followed troublous times, with British Orders in Council and our embargo and non-intercourse acts until 1812, and war until 1815, trade falling off at first one half, and at last (in 1814) to less than one twelfth of the former maximum. Just as trade was, in the war period, sinking to the vanishing point, the tariff rates were doubled in hopes of getting increased revenues needed for the war, but in vain.
§ 6. The tariff, 1816-1845. Though rates had been rising, manufacturers had been making efforts to secure higher rates for protection, even as early as 1803. Effectual exclusion of foreign goods and consequent stimulus to the establishment of manufactures in the eastern states resulted, in the period 1808-1815, from the embargoes and the war. On the return of peace, imports were resumed on a large scale and the call for a higher tariff was loud. In the revision of 1816, rates in a number of cases were fixed higher than those before the war. Average rates are said to have been about 20 per cent. The rate on both cotton and woolen goods was 25 per cent (and the minimum on cotton goods was a specific rate of 6¼ cents a yard). High rates were imposed on pig iron (50 cents a hundred), hammered bar (75 cents a hundred), and rolled bar ($1.50 a hundred, equivalent to about 100 per cent ad valorem). Rates were raised on many other articles. The average ad valorem rates collected in 1821 attained the remarkably high figures of 36 per cent on dutiable goods, and almost 35 per cent on free and dutiable together.
In 1824, in response to the growing sentiment in favor of the so-called “American policy of protection,” many rates were still further increased, as those on cotton goods and woolen goods (to 33⅓ per cent) and some kinds of iron. Cheap wool was now taxed 15 per cent, and that valued over 10 cents a pound at 20 per cent (to be 30 per cent after 1826). In 1828, in the “tariff of abominations,” which evoked much bitter criticism, the rates on all these goods were again raised, those on woolen goods being in some cases 100 per cent on the value, and those on iron being from 40 to 100 per cent on the value, and duties were levied on molasses, hemp, and flax. The results appear in the statistics of 1830, showing the average ad valorem rates on dutiable imports to be nearly 49 per cent, and on free and dutiable together to be over 45 per cent. This marks a temporary high point in tariff rates. Revenues were then becoming excessive, and that year the rates on tea and coffee and some other goods were reduced.
Violent protests, especially from the South, were made against the protective system, and the tariff became a more important political issue. Then in 1832 a number of changes were made, mostly downward; the iron tariff, for example, being reduced to about the level of 1824. Average rates were thus brought down to about 33 per cent on dutiable goods. The compromise tariff act of 1833 provided for a process of reduction during a period terminating in 1842, the cut to be small at first, then to be made more rapidly to bring the maximum rate on any article down to about 20 per cent.3 These changes, while as yet incompleted, had, in 1840, brought the average rates on dutiable goods down to but 30 per cent and on free and dutiable together to 15 per cent. The 20 per cent rate, however, remained in effect only two months in 1842, when it was replaced by a tariff with higher rates distinctly protective, passed by the Whig party, and which remained in force four years.
§ 7. The tariff, 1846-1860. The Democratic party, coming into power, passed the act of 1846, called the Walker tariff after the Secretary of the Treasury. As he was a believer in free trade, this act is often mistakenly described as a free-trade measure. It was, in truth, far from that. Most of the rates were, indeed, lower than those that had been in force between 1816 and 1846 (with the exception of those between 1840 and 1842), but still some of the rates were high (a few as high as 100 per cent) and many of them were strongly protective in nature. The fact that tea and coffee were on the free list is marked evidence that considerations of revenue did not dominate. The rate on cotton goods was 25 per cent and the rates on many of the most important other protected articles (iron, woolen goods, manufactures of iron, leather, paper, glass, and wood) were 30 per cent. The average rates under the act for its last eight years (to 1857) were on dutiable 26 per cent, on free and dutiable 23 per cent. The country prospered for eleven years under this tariff. In 1857 rates were again reduced, the more important protective rates from 30 per cent. to a level of 24 per cent. This time partizan considerations played no part in the discussion. The revenues of the government had been excessive and the need of a reduction was admitted by nearly every one. The average ad valorem rates under the nearly four years of the act of 1857 were about 20 per cent on dutiable and 16 per cent on free and dutiable (the lowest in the century between 1812 and 1913).
§ 8. The tariff, 1861-1871. The reduction of rates in 1857 was made just at the time when the country was at the height of a wave of prosperity and of speculation which culminated in the financial crisis of that year.4 As always at such time, the government’s revenues fell greatly. The first purpose in the revision of the tariff in 1861 was simply to restore the rates in the act of 1846. But the Morrill act, which became a law just before Fort Sumter was fired upon, contained many higher rates and its purpose was avowedly protective. This necessarily involved a sacrifice of possible revenues for the government.5 Then from the beginning of the Civil War till its close some rates were raised almost every month with little scrutiny or debate. The average ad valorem rate jumped from 19 per cent on dutiable in 1861 (under the law of 1857) to an average of 35 per cent in the three years, 1862-1865.
The most important tariff acts of the war were those of 1862 and 1864, by which large increases were made on many articles. These tariff acts were passed in connection with far-reaching and burdensome applications of internal revenue taxes on many kinds of manufactures. The tariff rates were primarily intended to offset these taxes, “to impose an additional duty on imports equal to the tax which had been put on the domestic articles,” as was said by the sponsors of the bill. These rates were similar in purpose to compensatory rates, and in many cases they were more than sufficient to offset the internal taxes. Under the last of these acts the duties collected in the six years from 1865 to 1870 averaged nearly 48 per cent on dutiable and nearly 44 per cent on free and dutiable.
The remarkable fact was that soon after the war the internal revenue taxes began to be repealed one after another, and by 1872 nearly all those bearing upon general manufactures (apart from cigars and alcoholic beverages) were gone. The tariff, however, remained almost unaltered. This repeal of internal revenue taxation had the same “protective” effect as raising the tariff rates by so much. As if this were not enough for the protected interests, in 1867 the duty on woolens was further raised, and in 1870 numerous other increases were made in the duties having a protective character. Some reductions were made, but these were almost all on articles of a distinctly “revenue” character such as tea, coffee, sugar, molasses, spices, wines! Revenues were superabundant for current expenses of government, and although there was a large national debt, hardly any of it was redeemable at the time. There was therefore need to reduce taxation, but the attention of the consuming and tax-paying public was distracted by the somewhat passionate issues of the day. Besides, the public had not the technical knowledge or the unified opinion on this subject to protect itself against the greedy lobby in this process of tax revision. And so, selfish commercial interests could get nearly what they asked for in Congress, and politicians at Washington, who had come to have a well-nigh superstitious faith in the efficacy of very high protective duties, could quietly use the opportunity to raise the people’s taxes for the people’s good.
These virtual increases in the protective power of the rates in force are not evident in the statistics of average ad valorem rates, because the higher rates in many cases were sufficient to exclude relatively more of the foreign products to which they applied.6 The imports came, by a process of selection, to consist more largely of goods subject to lower rates. So the year 1868 showed the highest average rate on dutiable goods (48.6 per cent) of any year after the act of 1828 until that of 1890, and the rate fell somewhat each year until in the fiscal year 1872 it was 41.3 per cent.
§ 9. The tariff, 1872-1889. In 1872 the country was again, as in 1857, nearing the crest of a wave of prosperity and of speculation. Imports and customs receipts attained new high points in our history, and, despite the enormous reductions of internal revenue taxation, the government’s receipts continued to be excessive.7 The important revenue articles, tea and coffee, were then transferred to the free list, as were also raw hides and paper stock and some other articles; the rate on salt was reduced one half and that on coal almost as much. Many other specific rates were reduced and the ad valorem rates on a long list of articles were cut to “90 per cent of existing rates.” The effects of these reductions were mingled with those of the severe financial panic occurring in 1873 and of the depression following, which reduced especially the importation of luxuries bearing the higher rates. The average rate of the three (fiscal) years 1873 to 1871 was 39 per cent on dutiable (a fall of 9) and 28 on free and dutiable (a fall of 16). The ratio of imports entering free, which in 1872 was still only about 1 in 14, became the next year 1 in 4. But government revenues falling short in 1874, advantage was soon taken of the circumstances to repeal in 1875 with little discussion the horizontal cut of tariff rates made in 1872. The specific rates that had been reduced in 1872 were little changed, however. From 1876 to 1883 (8 fiscal years) nearly a third of the imports consisted of goods on the free list. The average rate on dutiable was over 43 per cent, and on free and dutiable 30 per cent.
The tariff was a leading issue in the campaigns of 1876 and 1880. In 1876 the Democratic party’s platform contained a plank for “a tariff for revenue only.” It was a time of great industrial depression, and, as is usual in such cases, a large number of electors held the party in power responsible for business adversity (as in turn they credit it with any more or less fortuitous prosperity). The Republican candidate Hayes, after a long contest in Congress, was declared elected by a margin of one electoral vote. His opponent, Tilden, had received a quarter of a million more votes in the country as a whole. In 1880, when business prosperity was rapidly returning, the party in power was successful by a goodly margin of votes in the electoral college, though having a bare plurality of the popular vote. Garfield, the Republican candidate, was known as one of the more moderate protectionists, and his opponent, General Hancock, who was without any political record, declared the tariff to be a “local issue,” to be determined in the Congressional districts. The tariff issue was thus not very sharply drawn. The tragic death of President Garfield left no clear leadership. The tariff question from 1876 to 1884 was politically in the doldrums.
Yet there was undoubtedly a somewhat growing popular demand for some moderation of the very high duties. To this demand the friends of protection who were in power felt compelled to concede something—or to appear to do so. Congress appointed a Tariff Commission of which the chairman was secretary of the wool manufacturers’ association, and after a report the tariff act of 1883 was passed. The net results were almost nil. Some rates were lowered, while others were raised with a definite protectionist purpose. The average rates for the next seven years, 1884-1890, were 45 on dutiable (an increase of nearly 2 per cent) and 30 on free and dutiable (unchanged as compared with the period ending 1883). In 1884 the Democratic party elected its presidential condidate (Cleveland) and a majority of the House, but as it did not control the Senate it could not pass any of the various proposed measures for a “reform” of the tariff. In 1888 the protective principle was a leading issue in the campaign. Although Cleveland received a few ten thousands larger popular plurality than he had obtained four years before, and held the electoral votes of eighteen of the states, he lost New York and Indiana by very narrow margins, a result in which other issues played a large part. Harrison was elected, and the party favoring a high protective tariff came into power.
§ 10. The tariff, 1890-1896. The tariff act (known as the McKinley Act) of October, 1890, followed. This was a general extension of the principle of protection. The rates on woolen goods were on the whole increased and made in more cases prohibitive. The rates on wool were increased. The rates on iron, which was already highly protected, were little changed except by the increase of the duty on tin-plates. The duty on sugar (in the main a revenue duty, yielding $55,000,000 a year) was removed and a bounty was granted to domestic sugar producers. In the next three (fiscal) years, 1892-1894, the average rate proved to be more than 49 per cent on dutiable (4 per cent increase) and 22 per cent on free and dutiable (the remission of sugar duties accounting for the most of this fall of 8 per cent from the average under the preceding law—4 per cent fall from the last year of its operation). Particularly noticeable, however, was the increase in the proportion of goods entering free, which was nearly 55 per cent of all merchandise, as contrasted with about 33 per cent between 1884 and 1890.
Again the political weather-vane shifted. The month after the McKinley Bill became law, the Congressional elections (November, 1890) returned an overwhelming Democratic majority in the House, although this was a period of business prosperity, a fact usually favoring the party in power. In 1892, Cleveland, being again a candidate, was successful over Harrison by a largely increased plurality of the popular vote, and received almost double the electoral vote of his opponent. The House was Democratic, and the Senate soon became so. Business prosperity was rising again to a high level, but there were many features of financial and speculative weakness in the situation, intensified by growing fear of a cheap money (silver dollar) inflation under the act of 1878 providing for the annual purchase of silver. A financial panic occurred in September, 1893, six months after Cleveland’s inauguration.
Nevertheless Congress enacted the next year, August 28, 1894, the Wilson tariff act (named for the Congressman who introduced the bill). The changes made by this legislation were not on the whole very great, but were nearly all in the direction of the lowering of the tariff. Most notable was the putting of raw wool upon the free list. Some rates on woolen goods were reduced, but hardly more than enough to offset the effects, upon manufacturers’ costs, of the reduction of the tariff on raw wool. Likewise small reductions were made on cotton and silk goods, on pig iron, steel and tin-plate, and many other articles; and larger reductions on coal, iron ore, chinaware, and glassware. To make up for the expected reduction of receipts from other sources, a duty was laid again upon raw sugar, and an income tax was passed (this soon, however, to be declared unconstitutional).
Under this law, for three fiscal years (1894-1897) the average rates were 41 per cent on dutiable and 21 per cent on free and dutiable,—pretty high rates. The proportion entering free under this act was actually less than under the McKinley Act, partly because of the sugar item, and partly, probably, because of general business conditions.
§ 11. The Dingley tariff, 1897-1909. The campaign of 1896 was waged almost solely on the issue of free silver. Undoubtedly great numbers of voters supported William McKinley rather despite of, than because of, his high-protectionist beliefs. But his inauguration was promptly followed by the passage of the Dingley Act of July 24, 1897, which embodied a marked increase of protective rates. A duty was again levied on wool, and also on hides, which had been untaxed since 1872. High rates were made for woolens, linens, silks, chinaware, and the rate on sugar was doubled. Provision was made for some reduction of rates by reciprocity agreements, but the conditions were so complex that the effect could not be great. This high protective tariff, thus enacted without popular discussion, remained almost unchanged for twelve years, the longest life, by one year, of any tariff act in our history, while other issues absorbed public attention—the Spanish War, colonial policy, “imperialism,” railway rate regulation, corporation control, etc. The rate under the first full fiscal year of the operation of the Dingley tariff, 1899, was the highest on dutiable in our history, 52 per cent, and was nearly 30 per cent on free and dutiable. In practical operation, however, the average rate steadily became more moderate because of the rapid rise of the general price level that was in progress throughout this period, amounting to 35 per cent from 1898 to 1909.8 The average rate of duties collected for the period of twelve years was 47 per cent on dutiable and 26 per cent on free and dutiable. It was steadily falling, and the last year, 1909, was 43 per cent on dutiable and 23 per cent on free and dutiable.
§ 12. Sentiment favoring lower rates, 1908. While the Dingley Act was thus in operation showing declining average rates, sentiment was developing in every part of the country in favor of a further moderation of the tariff. This was due partly to the discontent resulting from steadily rising general prices, in which change the rise in the prices of food and of many other necessities was not fully compensated by the rise of the wages and incomes of the masses. Partly the growth of this sentiment accompanied the agitation against trusts and the belief that protective duties in some cases were an aid to the formation of domestic monopolies. But, more fundamentally, this changing sentiment was the result of the changing industrial conditions in America. The character of our foreign trade had altered greatly since the early nineties. We were importing relatively less and less of manufactured and finished products, and more of raw materials; and we were exporting less and less of raw materials and more of finished products. A growing number of manufacturers were feeling the need of cheaper raw materials and were looking hopefully toward an enlargement of their foreign trade.
In view of the changing public sentiment, the Republicans in the campaign of 1908 admitted that the protective tariff needed to be revised, but they declared that it should be revised by its friends. It was doubtless the general understanding that “revision” in this promise meant revision downward, though this was left somewhat unclear in a campaign wherein the tariff played a somewhat minor part. The Republican platform formulated a new rule for maintaining “the true principle of protection,” namely, that it “is best maintained by the imposition of such duties as will equal the difference between the cost of production at home and abroad, together with a reasonable profit to American industries.” This rule though fallacious, is very attractive in its suggestion at the same time of the idea of a moderation of the tariff and of an exact practical (not to say scientific) standard for the determination of the proper rate in every case.9
§ 13. The Payne-Aldrich tariff, 1909-1913. The tariff act of 1909 was the attempt of the successful party to redeem its campaign promises in regard to the tariff. Many changes of rates were made, both downward and upward. It was estimated that rates were reduced in 584 instances, affecting 20 per cent of imports. These changes included placing hides upon the free list (taxed 15 per cent before,) and cutting down the rate on leather, shoes, coal, lumber, iron ore, pig iron, and steel-rails. But on the other hand rates were increased in three hundred instances (including many items in the cotton schedule). The general belief that little reduction was effected, on the whole, was confirmed by the experience under the act. As compared with the last two years (1908-1909) of the Dingley tariff the first two years of the Payne-Aldrich tariff showed a decline of 1.5 per cent, and on free and dutiable a decline of less than 3 per cent. These reductions in the statistical results are no greater than occurred within like periods while the Dingley Act continued in operation without change.10
Probably no tariff since “the act of abominations” in 1828 has called forth more widespread criticism than this one, and the tariff became a leading issue in the campaign of 1912. After 1910, The House being Democratic, many bills to reduce duties were presented, and some were passed by both houses; but all were vetoed by President Taft, mainly on the ground that it would be best to await the report of the tariff board which had been authorized and appointed for the purpose of ascertaining the cost of production referred to in the “true principle of protection.”
§ 14. The Underwood tariff, 1913. After President Wilson was inaugurated, March 4, 1913, the tariff was at once taken up by Congress. The general features of the act that was passed were as follows:
(a) Considerable additions to the free list of raw materials.
(b) Abolition of compensatory duties corresponding with the old rates on raw materials.
(c) Replacement of specific by ad valorem rates in many cases.
(d) Taxation of plain kinds of goods less than fancy kinds—luxuries higher than necessities.
(e) Reduction of rates generally (most of the few increases being to correct some apparent error in the old law).
(f) Application of the so-called competitive principle to rates intended to be protective, viz., to leave the rate just barely high enough to keep out foreign products.11
Articles placed on the free list were raw wool (which had borne a rate equivalent to about 44 per cent), metals, agricultural implements, raw sugar (the lower rate to go into effect gradually), coal, lumber, many agricultural products including live cattle, meats, wheat, corn, flax, tea, and hemp, and numerous manufactures including boots, shoes, gunpowder, wood pulp, and print paper.
Moderate reductions were made in the schedules for chemicals, earths, cotton goods, and sundries, while rates on various luxuries were either unchanged or raised. Left almost unchanged were the schedules for tobacco, for spirits and wines, and for silks (already very high).
This act was signed October 3, 1913, and had been in operation about nine months when the great war broke out in August, 1914. What its effects would have been under more normal conditions we can judge little from the actual experience.
§ 15. Operation of the tariff act, 1913-1921. The revision of the tariff of 1913, viewed with non-partizan eyes, appears to have been carried out as consistently with regard to its professed doctrine, and as little influenced by the malevolent arts of the old-time Congressional lobby, as any debated tariff act in our history. It still contained, on the whole, a large measure of protection, evidenced by the fact that in the first eight months that the act was in operation the ad valorem rate on dutiable goods was but 4 per cent less, and the average rate on free and dutiable together was about 3 per cent less, than in the preceding year. Apparently this was far from a “free-trade tariff.” The reduction in the average rate collected was less than was expected. Many of the reductions had little effect, the former rate having been much higher than was needed to exclude the goods. In other cases the old rates were but nominal and inoperative because they were upon goods regularly exported, not imported (e. g., farm products, cotton goods, and some other manufactures). But some of the reductions doubtless would have forced the less efficient plants in some industries to increase their efficiency or go out of business. Time, in any normal period, is needed for adjustment, but an adjustment of a most abnormal kind was in progress during the war. Imports from Europe fell somewhat, while total imports (after 1915) increased, and exports increased enormously. Old industrial establishments were converted to different and temporary uses. The comparatively low duties had no harmful effect, and enabled our trade to adapt itself far more quickly to international conditions and to profit more by the great opportunities than could have been possible with a high tariff.
§ 16. The return to high tariff, 1921. With the ending of warfare in November, 1918, began to be heard anew the agitation for higher duties. Some industries, such as the chemical, which had sprung up during the war, saw their end if, and when, German trade was resumed. The financial depression about the middle of 1920 further stimulated the demand from many quarters for a return to high protective duties to “give employment to our labor.” The demand for a prohibitive tariff is always heard at such times. Our prediction made in 1916 was that12 the conclusion of the war must bring a new readjustment that must cause a severe shock to some enterprises and this must have been so under any possible variety of tariff, for such changes are logically related to the subject of financial crises rather than to that of the tariff.13 Further it was said at that time: “Under various pretexts, such as the danger of a flood of cheap goods after the close of the great war, attempts will be made to make the tariff still more prohibitive. If the attempt is made through temporary rates to reduce the shock of the trade adjustments, of the ‘dumping’ after the war, then the devising and administration of such measures should be delegated to an expert, disinterested, permanent tariff board. The task is to prevent temporary ‘unfair competition’ and sudden changes, rather than to raise permanent barriers to fair trade.”
The sweeping victory of the Republican party in November, 1920, was probably aided in some part by the belief that higher protective duties would remedy the situation. Agricultural interests were particularly hard hit by falling prices due to the closing of European markets because American credit was suddenly withdrawn. So temporary acts providing for higher duties on both manufactured and agricultural products were passed in 1921, and the country moves again toward a period of higher duties.
[1 ]See Vol. I, ch. 17, § 10.
[2 ]It is evident that it is only through ad valorem rates that it is possible to compare the average rate of duty for one tariff act with that for another. As, however, every tariff act is made up of both specific and ad valorem duties, it is only at the end of the year that an average ad valorem rate can be estimated by comparing the total of duties collected with the total estimated value of the goods imported. Average ad valorem rates are estimated in this way both on the dutiable goods alone, and on all goods, free and dutiable combined. There may be an element of error, even of misrepresentation, in such estimates. They do not give the simple test of the relative height of duties or of the degree of “protection” that we might at first suppose. Just to the extent that a new and higher rate really operates to exclude imports (and thus is protective in its effect) the goods subject to that rate cease to form part of the total imports. For example, if the average rate of duty were 25 per cent, and a 50 per cent rate on an article were increased to 75 per cent, it is possible that this rate would prove to be absolutely prohibitive. This raise of rate, therefore, would tend to reduce the average rates collected on all dutiable articles. Changes in general conditions of industry from causes quite apart from the tariff may result in shifting the proportions of imports that are dutiable so that the average rates go either up or down while the tariff law has remained unchanged on the statute book. A failure to consider these and related facts leads to much confusion in popular and political discussion of the tariff.
[3 ]Usually given as 20 per cent. However, a good many rates under the full operation of the act worked out as 21½ or 23 per cent, and a few at 26 and at 29 per cent. Besides, there were numerous specific rates, the ad valorem force of which cannot be determined.
[4 ]The political argument that the small tariff reduction of 1857 caused the crisis of 1857 will not bear serious examination. See ch. 16, § 13.
[5 ]See ch. 16, § 2.
[6 ]See above, § 3, note 2.
[7 ]Internal revenue receipts in 1866 had been $309,000,000; in 1872 they had fallen to $131,000,000, yet the government’s surplus for the three years 1870-1872 was little less than $100,000,000 a year. This was almost half of the total receipts from customs, which were $216,000,000.
[8 ]See above, § 3.
[9 ]See § 12 in ch. 16.
[10 ]Probably resulting from the rising prices, as explained above, § 3. For example, in one year, from 1899 to 1900, the average ad valorem rate collected on dutiable goods fell 3 per cent, and that on all goods fell 2 per cent; in the two years from 1904 to 1906 the average rates on dutiable fell 4 per cent and on all goods fell 2 per cent. See Fig. 2, ch. 14.
[11 ]On this see further ch. 15, § 5, § 6; ch. 16, § 12.
[12 ]First edition of this work, pp. 236, 238.
[13 ]See below, ch. 16, § 13.