The Jones Act is cabotage, among other things— it requires goods shipped by water between ports to be carried by American-built, US registered, ships crewed by US citizen crews. Various politicians recently have tried to get it repealed. Most of them are free-enterprisers, who believe cabotage raises costs. The latest attempts would repeal cabotage for Puerto Rico, which gets almost all its goods by sea. This article presents the other side, voiced by the American maritime Partnership.
Certainly cabotage is restraint of trade. It was a major cause of the War of 1812 and to some extent the American Revolution, when American shipping was a major world industry. Some of the reasons historically advanced for it are to maintain a sea shipping capacity and a cadre of trained maritime workers in case of a war. That was the case in the wars mentioned above. Britain needed ships and seamen that they could impress into the service of the crown in case of (another) war with France or Holland. In fact, they rather systematically impressed some American seamen, claiming they were British citizens. These claims were often false, but captains needed able bodied seamen. It provoked international incidents at the time. Another reason at the time was to reduce the possible influence of the American merchant fleet, which was carrying cargoes everywhere in the world, so the British shipping companies often lost business. Most of this merchant fleet was composed of ships funded or owned by perhaps a captain and a coalition of business people; seamen as well as the owners and captain received shares of the profit, and bore the risk of total loss if there was a disaster. This free-enterprise carriage was common in the ‘three-cornered trade’ with England, Africa, and the Caribbean islands or the Southeast coast of America. Cotton, tobacco or indigo went to Europe, British goods went to Africa for the colonies there, and slaves went back to the Americas to work the farms.
I’m not a naval historian at all. Most of what I learned came from Mahan’s Sea Power and the War of 1812, and from J. Fenimore Cooper’s (yes, that Cooper!) Naval History of the United States, both from my father’s library in lovely leather bound editions. I still have them. Genuine classics!