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July 01, 2007



Nye had dispelled this myth already in 1991:
John Nye, "The Myth of Free-Trade Britain and Fortress France: Tariffs and Trade in the 19th Century," Journal of Economic History (1991).

Richard A.

It would be interesting to do a similar graph of Japan vs. US average tariff rates from 1980 up to the present. Such a graph would show that the Japanese are no worse than we are when it comes to protectionism. Revisionism on this issue is badly needed.


Doug Irwin demolished Nye's argument in his comment:
“Free Trade and Protection in Nineteenth Century Britain and France Revisited: Comment on Nye,” Journal of Economic History 53 (March 1993): 146-152.

Dani Rodrik

Jim --

I have looked at Irwin's comment, and I would not say that he "demolished" Nye's argument. Nye's method for computing average tariffs is standard, and there seems to be no dispute that the numbers are as Nye portrays them. Irwin says that British tariffs were concentrated on a smaller number of products with no domestic production, but it is not at all clear that this makes the standard efficiency costs of these tariffs any less. If anything, we know that concentrating tariffs on a few commodities rather than spreading them around like France apparently did, raises their efficiency cost. Whether Britain was more or less protectionist depends on what you understand from the term, but I think Nye presents a fair view.


France had many import quotas, not counted in the tariff measure, whereas Britain had none. Britain's tariffs were the international extension of domestic excise taxes, so domestic producers received no "protection" from foreign competition. The efficiency costs of domestic taxation may be a different matter.


Didn't Paul Pairoch's "Economics and World History" already demonstrate that?

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"Parliamentary intervention, with regard to the East India Company, was again claimed, not by the commercial, but by the industrial class, at the latter end of the 17th century, and during the greater part of the 18th, when the importation of East Indian cotton and silk stuffs was declared to ruin the poor British manufacturers, an opinion put forward in John Pollexfen: England and India Inconsistent in Their Manufactures, London, 1697[127], a title strangely verified a century and a half later, but in a very different sense. Parliament did then interfere. By the Act 11 and 12 William III, cap. 10, it was enacted that the wearing of wrought silks and of printed or dyed calicoes from India, Persia and China should be prohibited, and a penalty of £200 imposed on all persons having or selling the same. Similar laws were enacted under George I, II and III, in consequence of the repeated lamentations of the afterward so “enlightened” British manufacturers. And thus, during the greater part of the 18th century, Indian manufactures were generally imported into England in order to he sold on the Continent, and to remain excluded from the English market itself." -- Karl Marx, June 24, 1853


Stephen Tokarick

If average tariffs are the metric by which a country is judged to be protectionist or not, then the answer is bound to be misleading. There are well-known problems with using average tariffs as a measure of openness, as Anderson and Neary have shown. It is very easy to generate examples where a country's average tariff rate declines, but the distortionary cost of the tariffs rise. I suggest that people read Anderson and Neary's work!

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