One of the things that has been heartening about the current crisis is that the world has not lapsed into wholesale protectionism, as occurred during the 1930s. However, this observation, which is frequently made (including by myself), ignores the fact that it actually took a while before protection really got going after 1929. Smoot-Hawley (passed in June 1930) is not really a counter-example, since this represented the culmination of a process that had been in the works since the Presidential campaign of 1928. Elsewhere, the British only broke with free trade in 1931, and Ireland held out even longer. If the world economy were to keep falling at its 2008-9 pace for 2 or 3 years — a scenario that seems to have been averted (touch wood) — who knows what would happen.
That politicians would in such a scenario find it difficult to hold out against the pressures to which they would be subjected is reinforced by this report on the creeping protectionism which has been occurring around the world. The column uses the word ‘juggernaut’, which is presumably a reference to Richard Baldwin’s point that over the past few decades, free trade has been gathering momentum as it creates new outward-oriented constituencies with a vested interest in maintaining open markets. Historically, this juggernaut has more often operated in reverse — think of the long run effects of the Napoleonic Wars in France or the US, or World War I, or the Great Depression. In these cases, disintegration created new companies selling to internal markets who depended on protection for their future well-being — and thus created a powerful political mechanism for ‘locking in’ disintegration.
I don’t think that the juggernaut, which has been rolling in a free trade direction for decades now, has changed course yet. However, the Baldwin analysis suggests the possibility of ‘tipping points’ which might occur in various (hopefully unlikely) states of the world. Things which would make such states of the world less unlikely include major and persistent increases in unemployment, exchange rate misalignments perceived as conferring ‘unfair’ advantages on particular trading partners, and (especially) a combination of the two.