It is typical for pundits to criticize the Jones Act claiming that it harms American consumers or benefits others — some even outlandishly claim it benefits Russian President Vladimir Putin. These hypercritical pundits all seem to either overlook or completely ignore a number of critically important facts. In a fact free world, one can come to any conclusion — even silly ones. But when facts and sound reasoning matter, the conclusions must stand up to scrutiny.
The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (also known as the Jones Act) was passed in the aftermath of World War I to ensure that America had a viable merchant marine that could provide support to our navy and military in times of war or national emergency. It was also intended to ensure that we had a viable ship-building and ship repairing capability — again to support our military. In a world where many foreign nations heavily subsidize their shipping industries as well as their ship building and repairing industries, we must not allow ourselves to become dependent upon other nations to maintain our naval strength.
Contrary to the view that the Jones Act is favored by despots like Vladimir Putin, the act has significant national security benefits for the U.S. Consider the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva, who said, “I am an ardent Supporter of the Jones Act. It supports a viable ship building industry, cuts costs and produces 2,500 qualified mariners. Why would I tamper with that?” Likewise, Former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zunkunft has said, “You take the Jones Act away, the first thing to go is these shipyards and then the mariners… If we don’t have a U.S. fleet or U.S. shipyard to constitute that fleet how do we prevail?” The military understands that the Jones Act is critically important to our national security.
History teaches an important lesson. In 1812, Napoleon left France with an army of about 700,000 soldiers. Napoleon’s army easily pushed through western Russia and made it all the way to Moscow. But as Napoleon’s supply lines became attenuated, his army lacked the ability to feed and supply itself. Napoleon, despite having the world’s greatest army, was defeated because he couldn’t supply his troops. When he returned to France six months later, his army had only 27,000 soldiers who could defend France and the balance of power in Europe was radically altered for a century.
The lesson we must learn from this is obvious — we may have the best technology and the best trained military on the planet, but if we cannot properly supply them, we too could meet with disaster. The Jones Act is an important part of our military’s ability to supply itself.
In a world in which China and Russia are expanding their naval capabilities, the need for the Jones Act is all the greater. Putin would like a weaker America, not a strong America – with a functioning domestic shipping industry to support our nation’s military strength.
The Jones Act also has a significant impact on homeland security. It limits foreign flagged ships and foreign crewed ships from sailing around America’s inland waterways. Dr. Joan Mileski, head of the Maritime Administration Department at Texas A&M, said, “If we totally lifted the Jones Act, any foreign-flagged ship — with an entirely unknown crew — could go anywhere on our waterways, including up the Mississippi River.” Obviously, this would make our defenses very porous.
Since 9/11/2001, our homeland security approach has been to place most of our security resources and assets at our coasts and at the ports that have the most traffic. But few assets and resources are used along the more than 25,000 miles of navigable inland waterways in the United States. There we rely upon the Jones Act to provide security. American flagged and American crewed ships are trained and keep a watchful eye for signs of terrorism and are thus an important part of our nation’s homeland security layered defense.
Our southern border is 1,989 miles long. The U.S. has more than 25,000 miles of navigable waters. Without the Jones Act, we’ve just made both sides of every river a possible entry point. Michael Herbert, Chief of the Customs & Border Protection’s Jones Act Division of Enforcement has said: “We use the Jones Act as a virtual wall. Without the Jones Act in place, our inland waterways would be inundated with foreign flagged vessels.”
The truth is the Jones Act is more important today than even when it was first passed. Today, it not only provides America with trained and skilled mariners and a viable ship building and ship repairing capability to support our military and Navy, but it also protects us from terrorists and other nefarious international bad actors.
Imagine if Chinese government owned ships could operate freely up and down the Mississippi River and remain there throughout the year. They would use that access to spy and intercept even civilian communications.
Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, in his seminal work — The Wealth of Nations — strongly supported and defended the British Navigation Act, which was a cabotage law much like America’s Merchant Marine Act. His rationale included, “The defense of Great Britain, for example, depends very much on the number of its sailors and shipping.”
The Jones Act protects America. This is a verifiable fact. Any alleged costs are amorphous and difficult to verify or prove. But what is not difficult to prove is that America’s security is benefited and protected by the Jones Act. The world is a dangerous place, filled with adversaries that will be all too happy if the Jones Act is weakened. It is time tested and proven.