NYE: That’s a long project I worked on for over 15 years of my life, and it led to my 2007 book, War, Wine, and Taxes. It starts from the fact when, early on in my career, I was doing some work in Second Empire France and looking at their tariff policies, and one of the things I did routinely was to compare average tariffs in Britain and France, something which apparently, at the time I was doing it, no one had ever bothered to do.

One of the things that shocked me was that, from about the 1850s, or certainly the 1860s, to the end of the 19th century, France had, in fact, much earlier, going back to the ’30s, France seemed to have lower average tariffs than the British did, for I would say three-quarters of the 19th century. It’s not till the end of the 19th century that Britain catches up with France in terms of openness of trade.

This is from “Conversations with Tyler: John Nye.” I’ve enjoyed a huge percent of these conversations between Tyler Cowen and various people. But this is by far my favorite for the insights of the guest. The whole thing is well worth reading.

More on the above issue:

COWEN: What are the intellectual origins of this myth of free-trade Britain? Where does it come from? Are we overrating the British in every other way, or is there some specific reason?

NYE: Well the specific reason there definitely has to do with the Corn Laws. With the repeal of the Corn Laws, Britain also repealed lots and lots of tariffs, but if you go back— Taussig first noticed this — that they removed lots of tariffs, but often on things that were a trivial part of trade. In contrast, many of the tariffs that even Adam Smith complained about in The Wealth of Nations, in particular the wine tariffs, were not touched.



Britain had a comparative advantage in manufacturers, so they were willing to go to free trade in manufacturers, but they were very, very protectionist when it came to consumption items and, in particular, beverages — wine, but also all alcoholic products, rum, sugar, tea, coffee, et cetera.

Check out also John’s comments about Napoleon III.