On 19th Century Tariffs & Growth

A few days ago, Pseudoerasmus published a blog piece on Bairoch’s argument that in the 19th century, the countries that had high tariffs also had fast growth.  It is a good piece that summarizes the litterature very well. However, there are some points that Pseudoerasmus eschews that are crucial to assessing the proper role of tariffs on growth. Most of these issues are related to data quality, but one may be the result of poor specification bias. For most of my comments, I will concentrate on Canada. This is because I know Canada best and that it features prominently in the literature for the 19th century as a case where protection did lead to growth. I am unconvinced for many reasons which will be seen below.

Data Quality

Here I will refrain my comments to the Canadian data which I know best. Of all the countries with available income data for the late 19th century, Canada is one of those with the richest data (alongside the UK, US and Australia). This is largely thanks to the work of M.C. Urquhart who recreated the Canadian GNP series fom 1870 to 1926 in collaborative effort with scholars like Marvin McInnis, Frank Lewis, Marion Steele and others.

However, even that data has flaws. For example, me and Michael Hinton have recomputed the GDP deflator to account for the fact that its consumption prices component did not include clothing. Since clothing prices behaved differently than the other prices from 1870 to 1885, this changes the level and trend of Canadian incomes per capita (this paper will be completed this winter, Michael is putting the finishing touch and its his baby).  However, like Morris Altman, our corrections indicate a faster rate of growth for Canada from 1870 to 1913, but in a different manner. For example, there is more growth than believed in the 1870-1879 period (before the introduction of the National Policy which increased protection) and more growth in the 1890-1913 period (the period of the wheat boom and of easing of trade restrictions).

Moreover, the work of Marrilyn Gerriets, Alex Chernoff, Kris Inwood and Jim Irwin (here, here, here, here) that we have a poor image of output in the Atlantic region – the region that would have been adversely affected by protectionism. Basically, the belief is a proper accounting of incomes in the Atlantic provinces would show lower levels and trends that would – at the national aggregated level – alter the pattern of growth.

I also believe that, for Quebec, there are metrological issues in the reporting of agricultural output. The French-Canadians tended to report volume units in manners poorly understood by enumerators but that these units were larger than the Non-French units. However, as time passed, census enumerators caught on and got the measures and corrections right. However, that means that agricultural output from French-Canadians was higher than reported in the earlier census but that it was more accurate in the later censuses. This error will lead to estimating more growth than what actually took place. (I have a paper on this issue that was given a revise and resubmit from Agricultural History). 

Take all of these measurements issue and you have enough doubt in the data underlying the methods that one should feel the need to be careful. In fact, if the sum of these (overall) minor flaws is sufficient to warrant caution, what does it say about Italian, Spanish, Portugese, French, Belgian, Irish or German GDP ( I am not saying they are bad, I am saying that I find Canada’s series to be better in relative terms).

How to measure protection?

The second issue is how to measure protection. Clemens and Williamson offered a measure of import duties revenue over imports volume. That is a shortcut that can be used when it is hard to measure effective protection. But, it may be a dangerous shortcut depending on the structure of protection.

Imagine that I set an import duty so high as to eliminate all entry of the good taxed (like Canada’s 300% import tax on butter today). At that level, there is zero revenue from butter import and zero imports of butter. Thus, the ratio of protection is … zero. But in reality, its a very restrictive regime that is not being measured.

More recent estimates for Canada produced by Ian Keay and Eugene Beaulieu (in separate papers, but Keay’s paper was a conference paper) attempted to measure more accurate indicators of protection and the burden imposed on Canadians. Beaulieu and his co-author found that using a better measure, Canada’s trade policy was 11% more restrictive than believed. Moreover, they found that the welfare loss kept increasing from 1870 to 1890 – reaching a figure equal to roughly 1.5% of GDP (a non-negligible social cost).

It ought to be noted though that alongside Lewis and Harris, Keay has found that the infant industry argument seems to apply to Canada (I am not convinced, notably for the reasons above regarding GDP measurements). However, that was in the case of Canada only and it could have been a simple outlier. Would the argument hold if better trade restriction measures were gathered for all other countries, thus making Canada into a weird exception?

James Buchanan to the rescue

My last argument is about political economy. Was the institutional arrangement of protection a way to curtail government growth? Protection is both a method for helping national industries and for raising revenues. However, the government cannot overprotect at the risk of loosing revenues. It must protect just enough to allow goods to continue entering to earn revenues from imports.  This tension is crucial especially since most 19th century countries did not have uniform general tariffs (like a flat 5% import duty) which would have very wide bases. The duties tended to concern a few goods very heavily relative to other goods. This means very narrow tax bases.

Standard public finance theory mandates wide tax bases with a focus on inelastic sources. However, someone with a public choice perspective (like James Buchanan) will argue that this offers the possibility for the government to grow. Basically, a public choice theorist will argue that the standard public finance viewpoint is that the sheep is tame. Self-interested politicians will exploit this tameness to be elected and this might imply growing government. However, with a narrow and elastic tax base, politicians are heavily constrained. In such a case, governments cannot grow as much.

The protection of the 19th century – identified by many as a source of growth – may thus simply be the symptom of an institutionnal arrangement that was meant to keep governments small. This may have stimulated growth by keeping other sectors of the economy more or less free of government meddling. So, maybe protection was the offspring of the least flawed institutional arrangement that could be adopted given the political economy of the time.

This last argument is the one that I find the most convincing in rebuttal to the Bairoch argument. It means that we are suffering from a poor specification bias: we have identified a symptom of something else as the cause of growth.