Higher Tariffs, Lower Revenues? Analyzing the Fiscal Aspects of the "Great Tariff Debate of 1888"
After the Civil War, Congress justified high import tariffs (relative to their prewar levels)" as necessary in order to raise sufficient revenue to pay off the public debt. By the early 1880s the federal government was running large and seemingly intractable fiscal surpluses revenues" exceeded expenditures (including debt service and repurchases) by over 40 percent during that" decade. The political parties proposed alternative plans to deal with the surplus: the Democrats" proposed a tariff reduction to reduce customs revenue, the Republicans offered higher tariffs to" reduce imports and customs revenue. This paper examines this debate and attempts to determine" the revenue effects of the proposed tariff changes. The results indicate that the tariff and the price elasticity of U.S. import demand during the 1880s below the maximum revenue rate, and therefore a tariff reduction would have reduced customs" revenue.
Published: Journal of Economic History (March 1998).