During the first Congress in 1789, Alexander Hamilton led the passage of legislation that required trade between U.S. ports to be conducted by U.S.-flagged vessels, which mirrored the laws of most major countries at the time. This forerunner of the Jones Act nurtured the nation’s fledgling maritime industry and provided a pool of U.S. ships, crews, and shipbuilders that could support the country in a conflict. Even free market theorist Adam Smith contended that England’s own similar statutes were “the wisest of all the commercial regulations” given their vital defense role. Hamilton’s goals still apply today. The domestic U.S. commercial fleet provides some of the ships, and 40 percent of the mariners needed to move military cargoes during a crisis. U.S.-flagged and operated ships also keep foreign vessels and crews off America’s interior waterways and lessen adversaries’ ability to gain control of commercial sea links between the Continental United States and Hawaii, Alaska, or island territories. Furthermore, the Jones Act’s U.S.-build requirement sustains shipyards the government depends on for episodic construction of military ships and ensures ship construction capacity is available in the United States to replace wartime losses.
Thanks in large part to the Jones Act, the U.S. maritime industry contributes hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy and employs hundreds of thousands of Americans in the shipping, shipbuilding and repair, fishing, oil and gas, and dredging businesses. Killing the act or reforming it by eliminating U.S. mariner or U.S.-build requirements would gut the domestic maritime industry by exposing it to subsidized Chinese and other foreign competitors and prompt a flight of private capital. Outsourcing an entire sector of U.S. jobs would be unwise economically; it would be foolish in terms of national security.End the Jones Act? Ask Alexander Hamilton | RealClearDefense