The Deep End of the Swamp


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If you’ve never heard of the Jones Act, there’s a good reason. It stays mostly hidden in the deepest part of “the swamp” of America’s special-interest groups, avoiding the light of day lest Americans realize how much damage it has inflicted on them — and how much of the government it has corrupted — for generations on end.

The Jones Act requires any ship transporting goods between two American ports to be manufactured, owned, and crewed by Americans. It was enacted after World War I to preserve America’s then-mighty merchant marine, with the stated purpose of encouraging commerce, protecting the nation’s shipbuilding industry, and ensuring that the nation would have enough sailors and ships for times of war and national emergency.

Today, the law only undermines those purposes, and it’s time for Congress and the administration to stop pretending otherwise. The law functions as a massive preference for imports and exports over domestic shipping, by penalizing the latter. It has ruined America’s oceangoing shipbuilding industry, and its meager national-security benefits largely disappeared decades ago.

Many proponents of the Jones Act concede its dire economic consequences, but they argue that the law is important for national-security reasons. Adam Smith himself defended similar laws on similar grounds. “The defense of Great Britain,” he wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “depends very much upon the number of its sailors and shipping.” The Navigation Acts were, therefore, “perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.”

But the Navigation Acts had no significant requirement that British merchant ships be built in Britain. And they severely restricted foreign vessels’ access to British ports for both domestic and international trade, so the Navigation Acts did not penalize domestic commerce as the Jones Act does. The Navigation Acts were terrible — they were among the grievances that sparked the American Revolution — but they were better than the Jones Act.

Read more at National Review.