Development and Underdevelopment in the History of Economic Thought

Frank W. Taussig and the Scientific Tariff: The Political Education of an Expert Economist

Gomez Betancourt Rebeca , Université Lyon 2 Triangle
Meardon Stephen, Bowdoin College

In the perennial U.S. tariff controversy, a new idea took root during the Progressive Era: the “scientific tariff.” A common belief held that legislative logrolling was an irrational way to determine tariffs. Experts at the executive’s behest could help the legislature to do better. A strong form of the belief held that the best tariffs could be determined by the experts themselves, who would arrive at their determinations scientifically. As chairman of the first permanent U.S. Tariff Commission, Harvard economist and trade-policy expert Frank W. Taussig embraced the common belief. But he resisted the strong form of it, which he blamed for a pernicious “fetish”: the notion that experts should determine tariffs so as to equalize costs of production between domestic and foreign producers. Economically Taussig considered the notion worthless: applied consistently it would eliminate foreign trade. Politically he thought it undemocratic: “Nobody, however expert,” he insisted in 1919, “can settle, much less dictate, the position which the country shall take on controverted political and industrial questions.” Taussig’s vast policy experience notwithstanding, events proved his political naïveté. Equalization of costs was the rationale of the Antidumping Act of 1921 (origin of one of today's chief "trade remedies") as well as the “flexible tariff provision” of the Tariff Act of 1922. What is more, it was the same Tariff Commission which Taussig had once led that provided the ostensible expertise for the laws to function and the political cover for their passage. With growing dismay he observed the institution that he had supposed to be “objective, non-partisan, unruffled” become a vehicle for partisanship masquerading as science. He was left at first to calling out the problem from the ivory tower and proposing institutional reforms, later to throwing sarcastic darts. This article reveals the role Taussig played in an outcome he regretted and what he learned.


Keywords: tariffs, trade, political economy, experts, expertise, scientism