The myth of free trade Britain?

Was nineteenth century Britain really a free trade wonder? Just how entrenched is protectionism in French national history?

John Nye offers some provocative answers:

Britain preached the gospel of free trade and France was cast in the role of the sinner, but there was little truth in this stereotype. France did have more protected products than England did but the average level of French tariffs (measured as total value of duties divided by total value of imports, cf. Figure 1) was actually lower than in Britain for three-quarters of the nineteenth century.2 In other words, tariffs had a smaller impact on French trade than British duties had on Britain’s trade. The French, while eschewing free trade, and openly rejecting the Anglo doctrine of open markets, actually succeeded in making their trade more liberal and more open than that of the more vocal British. The master of this was Napoleon III–Bonaparte’s nephew–who throughout the 1850s promoted the most radical liberalizing reforms of the French economy, all the while insisting that France was only interested in moderate reform.

The revisionism continues:

Indeed, it was not British unilateral tariff reduction that moved the world to freer trade. Despite the belief that is still common today that British exhortation opened the doors to European free trade in the late 19th century, it was the 1860 Treaty of Commerce, promoted by the Napoleon III and concluded between Britain and France, that really ushered in the age of nineteenth century “globalization”. British demands for unilateral tariff reduction usually fell on deaf ears.

Might this advantage of bilateralism be true more generally? If so, it would mean that a serious U.S. free trade agreement with Japan would be the best outcome imaginable for promoting free trade.

Read the whole thing, and don’t miss the illustrative chart.