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Democrats Once Did Free Trade

Authors: Amity Shlaes, Former Hayek Senior Fellow for Political Economy, and Douglas A. Irwin, Robert E. Maxwell í23 Professor of Arts and Sciences, Department of Economics, Dartmouth College
August 2, 2008
Wall Street Journal

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The failure of the Doha Round of trade negotiations seven years after its launch does not call for despair. The removal of trade barriers and the reduction of subsidies remain worthwhile objectives, and past experience has shown that difficult multilateral negotiations can be completed. But turning talks into agreements will require leadership that can endure a long, lurching process, without instant success.

Cordell Hull, America’s longest serving secretary of state (1933 to 1944), was one such leader. Even today, the Tennessee Democrat should be a model for politicians of all backgrounds.

Hull believed that trade was one of the best ways to prevent a repeat of the carnage of World War I. He wrote: “Though realizing that many other factors were involved, I reasoned that, if we could get a freer flow of trade—freer in the sense of fewer discriminations and obstructions—so that one country would not be deadly jealous of another, and the living standards of all countries might rise, thereby eliminating the economic dissatisfaction that breeds war, we might have a reasonable chance for lasting peace.”

Removing obstacles to trade was not easy. Congress kept tight control over its ability to write the tariff laws that governed imports of thousands of itemized products. The Republicans ruled the 1920s and were committed to protectionism. Britain turned against free trade and adopted discriminatory imperial preferences. Other countries kept wartime controls on trade in place.

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