Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (1930) (Major Acts of Congress)
Adam P. Plant
Many people reading this entry might know the following and no more about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (P.L. 71-361, 46 Stat. 590):
Economics teacher: In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the ... Anyone? Anyone? ... the Great Depression, passed the ... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act? Which, anyone? Raised or lowered? ... raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression. Today we have a similar debate over this. Anyone know what this is? Class? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone seen this before? The Laffer Curve. Anyone know what this says? It says that at this point on the revenue curve, you will get exactly the same amount of revenue as at this point. This is very controversial. Does anyone know what Vice President [George H. W.] Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. "Voodoo" economics.
Ah, yes, those lines delivered to a deeply disinterested high school class occur in one of the most memorable scenes in coming-of-age-film history. But what was not covered by actor Ben Stein speechwriter (under President Richard M. Nixon) turned comedian and actorn that economics lecture? What else can this entry teach us about the economic climate surrounding the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that the film Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) did not? Anyone? Anyone? We will soon see.
The most important thing to know about the economic climate that spawned the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (and the other tariff bills that came before it) is this: in the days in which those acts were written, April 15 had much less significance than it does today. Federal income taxes, though authorized by the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution, were much lower and barely affected most Americans.
THE BASICS OF TARIFFS AND TRADE IN AMERICAN HISTORY
Tariffs had been a major topic of U.S. economic policy since 1789, when President George Washington's administration used a tariff to raise revenue to help fund the new national government. However, tariffs were used for other reasons as well. Sometimes the U.S. government placed tariffs on certain finished goods or raw materials to gain an economic advantage over foreign nations that sent a lot of goods to America. It also used these "protective tariffs" to keep foreign industries (for example, the English iron industry) from outselling and driving out of business comparable American industries (like the American iron and steel industry) because the foreign industry was either more established, had a better product, or sell their product at a cheaper price than could its American counterpart. The use of protective tariffs was a divisive issue to many Americans, such as those in the South, who sold agricultural goods or raw materials to overseas industries that would make the finished products. In fact, at times foreign nations who traded with America but were hurt by the use of these tariffs would enact their own tariffs on American goods sold in their country, therefore making the American goods more expensive abroad and less likely to be purchased.
So, tariffs could either be for revenue, trade, or protectionist purposes. In the economic climate of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the tariff issue came to a head in American politics.
PREDECESSORS TO THE ACT
In the 1890s following the Civil War, the nation was in a period of rapid growth. It went from thirty-five states in 1867 to forty-eight states in 1912, and with the growing national government came the responsibility for funding
It was under these conditions that the McKinley Tariff was passed in 1890. In the presidential election of 1888, Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated Democrat Grover Cleveland, who had supported free trade (trade among nations without tariff restrictions). President Harrison's administration believed that American industries needed protection, so they wanted to pass protective tariffs. In fact, protectionist economic policies became the foundation of the Republican Party's economic outlook for the next two decades. The McKinley Tariff was the first in a string of tariff-raising bills that would set U.S. economic policy. It raised the tariff rate to a record high of 48 percent. It also set off a trend of American trading partners passing tariffs of their own in retaliation for the McKinley Tariff's passage.
The second major tariff passed during that era was the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. This bill, passed in 1909 by a Republican-controlled Congress, attempted to lower the average tariff rate paid on imported goods. However, the act caused little real change in the economic landscape of the United States. Politically, it angered progressive Democrats who had begun to gain some national prominence.
With Congress was so closely divided between the Democrats and Republicans, the Democrats were able to secure the proposal of the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on July 12, 1909, in exchange for the Payne-Aldrich bill's passing. The Sixteenth Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1913, and created the federal income tax, giving the U.S. government an alternative manner in which they could fund the federal government. The United States then became less reliant on the income tariffs produced. At last, the Democrats had gained a foothold in developing the economic policies of the United States.
The final important precursor to the Smoot-Hawley Act was the Underwood-Simmons Tariff, which was passed in 1913 shortly after the Sixteenth
POSTWAR ECONOMICS AND THE GREAT DEPRESSION
The immediate economic boom right after World War I led to high expectations that were unrealized once the postwar economy returned to normal. Further, the policies passed during the 1920s reflected the Republican Party's belief that it was best to allow industry to drive the country as an economic engine. Congress passed bills setting low taxes on income and investment and establishing policies unfavorable toward international trade. However, a massive crisis unfolded that would severely hamper the nation's economy. In October of 1929 the stock market crashed, sending the country toward the Great Depression. Many major industries lost money in the market's crash, and workers at all levels were hurt either by the loss of their savings or their jobs. By 1932 almost one-quarter of Americans were unemployed.
It was in the middle of this rapidly deteriorating economic situation that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed. The country sank deeper into the Great Depression because of the poor economic climate created in the 1920s, high unemployment rates, and other nations that enacted their own protectionist trade measures in retribution.
See also: TARIFF ACT OF 1789.
Bartlett, Bruce. "The Truth About Trade in History."<http://www.freetrade.org>.
United States Information Agency. "An Outline of American History: Chapter Nine: War, Prosperity, and Depression."<http://www.usis.usemb.se/usis/history/chapter9.html>.