Economic Protectionism and a Certain Experience with Apostle Smoot

(This is a guest post by Michael Davidson. He is an attorney by profession but has a degree in economics and loves the subject. He also has many friends in Canada, including many who spend considerable time at Fort Mac, and for whom he is really concerned.)

Those of you who did their undergraduate studies at BYU will likely remember a general education course called American Heritage. This course was a survey course that was one-third US History, one-third US government/politics and one-third US economics. It was a required course for every undergraduate, and so it tended to be taught in a large lecture hall with hundreds of students. This was not appealing to me, so I was delighted to find one section that was taught in a smaller classroom. The hitch was that it was intended for Canadian students. I signed up anyway, thinking that the worst thing that could happen would be that I would have to drop the class and enroll in one of the monster sections.

I am so glad I took this class. It was taught by a fellow named Delbert Palmer who I became good friends with by the end of the semester. He was an older gentleman, and had been a businessman in Lethbridge, Alberta for many years but had never gotten a university degree. (He had also been the first mission president in Chile in the early 1960’s, but that is another story entirely.) When he retired from his businesses, he decided to enroll at BYU and finally earn his degree, which he did. While he was there he further took it upon himself to teach this section of American Heritage for mostly Canadian students, and a few select Canada-philes (like myself) without pay as a hobby. It was American Heritage, but with a comparative twist. While learning about the US Constitution, we compared it with the Canadian Constitution for instance. It was an amazing course.

One day, we were discussing the Great Depression and the various causes of it. One of the many things touched on was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

Mr. Hawley was a member of the House of Representatives from Oregon, while Mr. Reed Smoot was a US Senator from Utah. This Act raised U.S. tariffs on tens of thousands of imported goods to never before seen levels, which effectively closed the US markets for those goods to foreign suppliers. This was very bad news for nearly every country that traded goods with the United States at the time. Then as now, the largest trading partner the US had was Canada, and these huge trade barriers meant considerable hardship for those Canadians whose livelihoods were largely tied to trade of their goods to the United States.

Readers of this blog will also recognize that Mr. Smoot was also Elder Smoot of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In this capacity, he was assigned to preside at a stake conference in Cardston, Alberta, during the time that the Smoot-Hawley Act was working its way through congress. As it turns out, Prof. Palmer’s father was the stake president of the Cardston Alberta stake at that time. Prof. Palmer related to us that on the appointed Friday afternoon, his father took him on a drive to Lethbridge to pick up Elder Smoot from the train station, which drive took them nearly two hours, one way. Having collected Elder Smoot, Prof. Palmer, then a young boy, sat in the back seat for the drive back and listened to his father, the stake president, scream and yell at Apostle Smoot for the entire drive to Cardston regarding the horrible Tariff Act and the great harm it would do to Alberta and the world. He had never heard his father so animated before, and it left quite an impression. Upon arriving at their home, where Elder Smoot was to be a guest, not another word was said on the subject. However, at the end of the stay Prof. Palmer again accompanied his father as he drove Elder Smoot back to Lethbridge to catch his train. And again, his father, the stake president, spent every minute of that drive yelling and screaming at the apostle in the passenger seat. He said he had never seen his father so animated since.

Looking back on it, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, and the ensuing retaliatory tariffs, is considered by most economists and historians to have been one of the major causes of the worldwide Great Depression. Prof. Palmer’s dad was right to oppose it, as the years following its passage saw nearly two-thirds of worldwide international trade evaporate. It not only raised prices on US consumers for tens of thousands of goods, it also closed markets to most US exporters as well. It should be pointed out that these were entirely foreseeable results of this bill. This coincided with other market weaknesses that resulted ultimately in the most profound economic disaster in modern history.

So why do I raise this now? Two reasons, really, the more minor of which being my friend, Delbert Palmer, passed away some time ago and enough time has passed that I don’t think that he would mind me sharing this story. It was never something he told me to keep secret, he shared it in class, but I never felt comfortable publishing it before. Secondly, and more importantly, we find that this election cycle has exposed a deep current of resentment of foreign companies and countries “beating” the US in trade, and a certain prominent idiot spouting off about how he is going to fix this “problem.” He tells us that US citizens are going to get bored because the US is going to start winning so much against these foreign interests as he goes in and renegotiates these trade deals.

Though his proposed solutions are so far very vague, one can assume that these changes will increase the cost of imported goods through some mechanism to the point of effectively closing or limiting access to the US market to those goods. The goals and means of accomplishing this will likely be very similar in effect to the goals and means of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. When we close our doors to foreign goods, those countries will close the doors to our own exports as surely as the sun rises in the east. Does anybody really think that in this day and age, when the economy is a tenuous as it is now, that this is a good idea? No way, but it is popular amongst some who can’t or won’t foresee the problems. It gets votes. But it is also entirely foreseeable that if this man does what he says he will do, he will destroy a large percentage of international trade to the detriment not only of ordinary Americans, but also ordinary Canadians and ordinary folks living in nearly every country in the world. Smoot-Hawley is in the past, thankfully, and should stay there.

30 thoughts on “Economic Protectionism and a Certain Experience with Apostle Smoot

  1. The bottom line is that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both dopes when it comes to economics. Both are protectionists and the policies of both would send the world into a severe recession.

  2. I’m not sure this is exactly the model I would choose for speaking to an Apostle.

    On the other hand, Brother Palmer was taking Senator Smoot, not Elder Smoot, to task, and Brother Palmer had the better argument.

    And he took him to task in private, with no one else there but his young son.

  3. From what I’ve read over the years, not only was Senator Smoot an unpopular senator, but Elder Smoot was a rather unpopular apostle. J. Reuben Clark couldn’t stand him. Fascinating story, thank you for sharing.

  4. As I’ve thought about this over the years, I’ve wondered whether this is simply the story of a well meaning senator who lacked a rudimentary grasp on basic economic principles, or was the tariff and its results on some level a conscious and deliberate act? Did God intend for the Great Depression to occur, and was Senator Smoot part of the plan? There are many interesting questions, because this may not be an example of apostolic fallibility, it may be an example of an apostle doing precisely what was ordered.

  5. LDS scripture demonstrates a long a storied history of a God that doles out punishments, both in the past and predicted in the future. As much as you would prefer that this is not the case, it doesn’t change the fact that there is a history of prophets taking steps to punish those that need to be called to repentance.

  6. “this may not be an example of apostolic fallibility, it may be an example of an apostle doing precisely what was ordered.”

    I’ve wondered that too, especially after listening to an interview with Phillip Jenkins about his recent book on Religion in WWI, and one on a recent book on WWII.

    And I wonder, without the depression would Hitler have risen and would Eugenics STILL be scientifically fashionable? And would we still be justifying horrible wars with God?

  7. I won’t comment on the theology of it, just the necessity: Smoot-Hawley was quite popular with much of the voting public and passed by wide margins. I doubt it was necessary for Elder Smoot to dirty his hands with it. I think it was the act of Senator Smoot, acting in his secular office.

  8. Better examination of the theses in Black Earth

    Snyder: … [I]f we think that Hitler was just a nationalist, but more so, or just an authoritarian, but more so, we’re missing the capacity for evil completely. If Hitler had just been a German nationalist who wanted to rule over Germans—if he was just an authoritarian who wanted to have a strong state—the Holocaust could not have happened. The Holocaust could happen because he was neither of those things. He wasn’t really a nationalist. He was a kind of racial anarchist who thought that the only good in the world was for races to compete, and so he thought that the Germans would probably win in a racial competition, but he wasn’t sure. And as far as he was concerned, if the Germans lost, that was also alright. And that’s just not a view that a nationalist can hold. I think a nationalist cannot sacrifice his entire people on the altar of the idea that there has to be racial competition, which is what Hitler did, and that’s what made him different from a Romanian nationalist, or a Hungarian nationalist, or what have you. At the end of the war, Hitler said, ‘Well the Germans lost, that just shows the Russians are stronger. So be it. That’s the verdict of nature.’ I don’t think a nationalist would say that.

  9. Actually, the speculations are in line with Judeo-Christian doctrine, as well as LDS doctrine. The issue of innocents suffering along with the wicked when God metes our punishment, have scriptural examples in the OT, the NT (Revelation of St John), the BoM, and the D&C, and have been mentioned several times in General Conference within the recent past.

    The idea that if an innocent person suffers alongside a wicked one, then the tragedy/disaster/”punishment” can’t be from God is not supported by the scriptures. The matter has been dealt with by Jewish and Christian theologians for centuries, if not millennia.

    Some may not like the answers that ancient and modern prophets, and religious leaders of other faiths, and other religious thinkers have put forth to the question “why do the innocent suffer along with the wicked?”. But the matter has been dealt with extensively within religious viewpoints. And has been reconciled quite often to Christian doctrine. Non-believers may not like the answers, but the answers are out there.

  10. Bookslinger…
    How does this supposed philosophy square with the second aof “we believe that (people) will be punished for (their) own sins and not for (someone else s ) Adams transgression…”. While traditional creedal Christiandom has felt fine punishing person A for person Bs crime, Mormonism has typically found this reprehensible, and instead interprets the problem of suffering to be the natural consequences of agency, rather than well thought out and planned punishment from God. The difference is God allowing Hitler to harm the Jews in order to respect Hitlers (and his constituents) agency rather than inspiring him, as your philosophy would allow for (require?).. So which is it, is suffering a natural consequence of agency, which can feel like punishment. Or is God hitting the smite button?

    I don’t deny that various Christian philosophers have employed the argument. I just think they’re wrong, because of the second aof.

  11. I believe Joseph Smith was thinking of eternal punishment when he wrote the Second Article of Faith.

  12. If Apostle/Senator Smoot was employing bad economics to hasten the Depression to fulfill God’s larger purposes then he will get his reward. I wonder what reward is in store for those who conspired to kill Jesus? After all, this mortal probation would be for naught if God’s plan had not been fulfilled in the meridian of time. Do we owe those who conspired and executed Jesus a debt of gratitude? Even their barbaric and cruel methods were a fulfillment of prophecy so their sadism was in accord with the plan laid down from the Father, no?

  13. Atc, perhaps you conflate the Sanhedrin and Pharisees with the Roman soliders. The Lord asked Heavenly Father to forgive the Roman soldiers .

    We don’t know what’s in store for the Sanhedrin and Pharisees.

    Are there any conference talks by General Authorities that you know of that reference the eternal situation for the Samhedrin/Pharisees?

    KGB: good point.

  14. Bookslinger, doing exactly zero research beyond my memory banks, the only GC talks I recall unequivocally and forcefully condemn all involved in bringing to pass that vital part of the Plan, except the Saviour of course.

    But, if we consider the possibility Senator/Apostle Smoot can be forgiven for participating/extending the economic catastrophe and probably large number of painful slow deaths from the Great Depression to bring about something as ephemeral as “repentance” (zero empirical evidence the Great Depression hastened the Work. In fact, the Depression probably diluted the pool of available missionaries to serve.) then those who played an active role in the critical act of mortality and eternity deserve some sympathy for their misbegotten role, no?

    For the record, I think Apostle/Senator’s mistake was just that and not part of a Divine plan to bring about misery and suffering for some larger Divine purpose. He pushed a foolish plan with catastrophic results. The Sanhedrin/Pharisees pushed a murderous plan in a cruel manner with fantastic results that benefit every person who enters mortality. If we can go to such absurd lengths to exonerate Apostle Smoot b/c he was an apostle but made a clear blunder why not extend the same courtesy to others who indisputably furthered God’s plan by orders of magnitude more than any Apostle in the modern Church could.

  15. Atc, because of this thread, I read parts of the wikipedia article on the Smoot-Hawley tariff act.

    The House passed the bill in May 1929, the stock market crash was Sep 1929 (four months later) and the Senate passed the bill in Mar 1930, six months after the crash. The two versions were reconcilled and passed into law in June 1930.

    So i think the origin of the bill could not be said to be in response to the crash/depression, but, the wiki article claims that _after_ the crash, the push for the bill in the senate did use the claim that the bill would fix things or protect the American worker from cheap foreign goods.

    Even today, companies such as FedEx employ many people as tariff clerks who classify imported goods so that they may be tariffed/taxed in the appropriate category.

    The concept of how God “uses” evil or tragedy and _turns_ it to His purposes and mankind’s benefit is fascinating, for lack of a better term.

    God’s foreknowledge of what is going to happen, even His knowing how we are going to use our agency, and how that foreknowledge is part of His overall divine plan, is so vast and complex, it astounds me to the point where I can’t comprehend it. I often need to remind myself: “God knows what He is doing.”

    (I been trying to understand multiple higher spatial dimensions, and extend that thinking to higher dimensions of time, wherein our one-dimensional time is a sub-set of higher time dimensions where God operates. And that appears to satisfy/answer the foreknowledge-vs-agency paradox for me.)

    So while God doesn’t have to create or cause evil, we choose that on our own, those choices of evil are taken into account, and appear to be essential parts of the overall plan of salvation. Evil is “used” as opposition to test us, and make us grow.

    I forget where I read it, but one of my favorite sayings is “(Of everything that exists or happen) what God doesn’t cause, He allows (to exist or to hapen).”

    So you do point out another paradox. If at least some people didn’t choose evil, could God’s purposes still be brought about? Reminds me of Lehi’s “There must be opposition in all things.”

    It probably does take a viewpoint from the higher dimensions of space and time to properly understand it.

  16. I was going to add, if anyone thinks the spirit of Smooth Act isn’t alive and well, you’re ignorant.

    Tariffs are one of the many ways our politicians buy favors (0% duty) and punish competitors (40% duty). Unless of course you can explain why the same product imported from different sources should range from 0 to 40% or higher. And to think what the colonists did when there was just a tax on tea. Now we pretty much have a million different tax classifications on imports.

    What Trump is proposing is pretty much what’s already done. So it’s no surprise there that he’s an unprincipled bag of hot air, because that’s what our politicians already are.

    As an aside, being punished for your own sins is entirely different than facing mortal consequences as a result of someone else’s actions.

  17. Senator Smoot also opposed the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI. He was in conflict with President Heber J. Grant on that issue, and their divergent views surfaced in General Conference addresses. President Grant predicted that the German people would feel betrayed if the treaty was not ratified and that betrayal would lead to further conflict. President Grant lost several grandsons in WWII.

    I hope that the statements regarding Smoot bringing the judgment of heaven through his idiotic actions were firmly tongue-in-cheek. The notion is so radically fundamentalist…. all we need are political radicals running around this Church thinking they are the hands of God.

  18. Don’t thank the Sanhedrin/Pharisees. While they were the only nation that would crucify their God, they made many attempts to bring Jesus to his knees, but were foiled at every turn.

    Thank Judas. He handed Him to them on a thirty-pieces-of-silver platter (seems cruel to reference His cousin John, but the expression fits). Many times, Jesus stated, “Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” This gives us a small glimpse into His omniscience and foreknowledge that one’s nefariousness was needed to further His plan.

    If agency is an eternal principle, then so is opposition. We also ought to thank Lucifer for rising up in rebellion to the Father’s plan, for without Lucifer and his forces, the Plan is of no effect. Another glimpse comes from Moses 4:6, for when the serpent beguiles Eve, he plays right into His hands, “not [knowing] the mind of God.” It’s a tricky, even cunning, thing to utilize one’s weakness(es) to further another’s grand purpose without any compulsion or manipulation. But that’s what happened in the pre-existence, in the Garden of Eden, during the end of Christ’s ministry, and no doubt in many, many other instances. God skillfully employs agency and opposition to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children. What a fascinating and mind-boggling paradox!
    Back to the OP, however, we recall Joseph Smith’s “Kirtland Safety Society” (an ironic misnomer) that had disastrous consequences. In establishing this bank, I think it’s pretty clear that he was not acting in his prophetic role. Yet, at the same time, it was a refiner’s fire and a filtering that revealed the true colors of many saints. Did it further God’s purposes? I would say, yes, because, again, agency and opposition.

    Though the Smoot-Hawley Act was one of many factors that precipitated the Depression, I have no doubt that the Lord utilized Smoot’s senatorial agency/action, or weakness, as the case may be, to further His purposes.

  19. The idea that Senator/Apostle Smoot was working to bring about the Lord’s purposes and bring on the Great Depression is interesting, and we will likely never know for certain. But to me, it seems rooted in the concept of prophetic/general authority infallibility, which is problematic at best. It was entirely possible for Apostle Smoot to act in what he believed the Lord wanted him to do in his ecclesiastical calling, while being left entirely to his own experience and agency as a Senator.

    “(Of everything that exists or happen) what God doesn’t cause, He allows (to exist or to hapen).”

    I totally agree, to the extent that God has given us our agency, and is willing to let things play out as they may. That does not mean that every time that we act badly and according to our own will (“trusting in the arm of flesh”) , that God intended for those things to happen as a result. We have ample evidence that he mourns with us over both the bad that happens to us that is not of our making, as well as when we choose poorly and bring upon ourselves misery and suffering.

  20. I think that Elder Smoot was concerned with preserving the sugar industry in Utah and Idaho. Sugar beets were about the only cash crop that allowed large Mormon families to subsist on their relatively small plots of land. Cultivating sugar beets was labor-intensive; even small children could help with the thinning and harvesting. For that reason, the Church had invested heavily in the sugar industry. Cane sugar from outside the United States was much cheaper.

  21. Re: 2nd Article of Faith. I have heard it suggested that individuals are eternal and thus can be punished for their own transgressions on an eternal scale, but other groups of people (nations, tribes, even the church at a particular time and place) are temporal organizations for this earth only that can therefore can only be judged within the confines of history, which can lead to messy but nevertheless righteous judgments.

    However, I have to agree. I don’t think that the Lord caused the Great Depression. But I wouldn’t have a problem saying he didn’t prevent it, probably for a great many reasons.

  22. Fun fact: Smoot-Hawley has never been repealed. They’ve just added other laws over the years to nullify its effects. But yes, this was one of the worst and greatest contributors to the Great Depression.

    Curious, and no one really talks about this, but less regulation, more freedom to innovate would go a long way to helping the US and our sad little economy. I actually never took American Heritage at BYU ( transfer students got out of it), but I did take other Econ classes .. always hard, but always interesting. I clearly remember a day when a graph Dr. Kearl had explained in detail in class was being explained on a news program. Reality met the class, and everything Dr. Kearl said would happen did, and was. Amazing that.

  23. Joyce,

    I got my bachelors in economics, and it is amazing how useful it is if your mind isn’t clouded with the nonsense spouted by the Keynesians and the socialists/communists. Luckily, most of the BYU econ department has a healthy skepticism for those wrong-headed types. 🙂

  24. I know about their Econ faculty. Funny, when I was hired for my first teaching job, the reason I got the job was because I had to take Econ 110 at BYU, and none of the other applicants had econ classes in their CV. I was terrified, because I struggled with the math in the class (I loved the class though). I stayed one day ahead of the kids. I LOVE teaching Econ now! Love it! I think I could go back and be an Econ major though.

  25. Not related to the topic at hand, but I also took Del’s class, and then became he’s TA for the last year he taught. Del was a genuinely fine man who I loved working for. I’m not surprised you would remember things from his class all these years later. A memorable fellow.

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