Raising trade barriers as a response to an economic downturn isn’t a very smart idea. That said, I’ve rarely if ever seen a serious economic historian attribute the Great Depression primarily to the Smoot-Hawley tariff. The timing doesn’t add up right, and the United States just isn’t a particular trade-dependent country. Milton Friedman, for example, is a pretty hard-core right-winger but that’s not what he thinks. Naturally, since this explanation lacks intellectually respectability it’s commonly heard from conservative pundits and politicians. Michelle Bachman, however, gives it a special partisan twist arguing that “FDR applied just the opposite formula, the Hoot-Smalley Act which was a tremendous burden on tariff barriers” and that this is what caused the Great Depression.
TPM’s Eric Kleefeld has a feeble effort at a rebuttal:
Here’s what really happened: When Franklin Roosevelt took office, unemployment was already about 25%. And the tariff referred to here was actually the Smoot-Hawley bill, co-authored by Republicans Sen. Reed Smoot of Utah and Rep. Willis Hawley of Oregon, and signed into law by President Herbert Hoover.
Kleefeld needs to read Michael Dummett on reverse causation. It’s true that Bachmann is making an unfortunate error about the names of Messrs. Smoot and Hawley. But her contention is simply that Roosevelt, though he took office in March 1933, was actually able to cause events in the past precipitating the very years-long Depression that led to his election. It’s a bit confusing, yes. And somewhat metaphysically controversial. But not at all something she deserves to be mocked for.
[no, not really—she should be mocked]