100 Years of Failed Policy: The Jones Act


The Jones Act was a US protectionist policy fashioned after The Navigation Acts passed by British Parliament in the colonial era. The Act  passed in June, 1920 as Part of the Merchant Marine Act of the same year. Although it has been revised a number times, it remains law to this day.

Named after Washington Senator Wesley Jones, its goal was to develop and sustain one of the greatest merchant marine fleets in the world. 

There was surprisingly little public debate on the matter. 

The Merchant Marine Act was passed by a Republican controlled Congress and signed by President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.

Surely after 100 years, the effect of this act will have been to have created the strongest merchant marine fleet on the planet, with a robust ship building economy and vast armies oif merchant marine crews.

Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The US merchant marine fleet has grown weaker year after year. In 1960 the US Merchant Marine had 2,926 vessels, making up 16.9 percent of the world’s fleet, but today our fleet has been reduced to 182 vessels, which is 0.4 percent of the world’s vessels. Out of those 182, only 95 are “Jones Act Compliant”.

Listen here:

The Jones Act has been criticized as a protectionist policy, cloaked as necessary for strategic defense. However the Biden administration has been consistent it’s support of the Jones Act, stating, “Biden has been a consistent and strong advocate for the Jones Act and its mandate that only U.S.-flag vessels carry cargo between U.S. ports.”

How successful has the Jones Act been in attaining its goals?

How successful has the Jones Act been in achieving its goals of: strengthening America’s Merchant Marine, Shipyards and Ship repair capacity?

Due to such low demand, most US ship building has been reduced to the construction of barges and tug boats. The annihilation of the US Merchant Marine and US Shipbiulding has been the result. 

Your questions are how, what and why. How did this happen, what impact does the Jones Act have on our merchant marine and shipping and why does this disastrous piece of legislation continue its life?

Who was Wesley Jones?

Let’s start off with the Act’s main proponent, Wesley Jones.Wesley Jones was born in 1863 in Illinois. He grew up working on farms. His father was killed in the Civil War. Wesley went on to study at Southern Illinois College for his Bachelor’s Degree, and passed the bar after studying law in Chicago.

Wesley Lively Jones
Source: U.S. House of Representatives

In 1883 he moved to North Yakima, Washington to work as a lawyer. He was also involved in Real Estate. Jones served five terms in the House of Representatives from 1898 to 1909. He then served in the US Senate from 1909 until 1932, the year of his death.

Jones frequently accused anyone opposing his initiatives of supporting foriegn enemies. For example, he:

  • Believed that those that were against the Jones Act were in league with foreign powers looking to profit from American Commerce, at a cost to America’s security.
  • Charged that beer brewers were secretly financing newspapers in the interest of liquor and accused them of being pro-German.
  • Complained that loans by brewers to Arthur Brisbane for the purpose to buy The Washington Times demonstrated Brisbane’s pro-German agenda. Arthur Brisbane was a highly successful newspaper editor and journalist. Brisbane worked for William Randolph Hearst and was a close associate.

Why was the Jones Act made into law?

The Jones Act was positioned as necessary to build and maintain a strong US Merchant Marine after the shortcomings of the US fleet was apparent when the US engaged in, and eventually joined, war against Germany in 1917.

Prior to World War I, the US had about 1,000,000 gross tonnage across its merchant fleet. 

However, there were only three commissioned Navy vessels capable of transporting troops: the transports Hancock and Henderson, and the seized German auxiliary cruiser SMS Prinz Eitel Friedrich, renamed the DeKalb after the Revolutionary War hero.

The US was so short of transport vessels to transport men and cargo, that the British Empire offered use of their ships but demanded in exchange that US servicemen be placed under British control.

In response the US resorted to confiscating enemy flagged ships in US ports, which included 91 German vessels. The army  hitched rides with allies or payed foreigners for transit to Europe. 

Germany then unleashed its U-Boats, inflicting great damage to the US Merchant Fleet, in order to prevent as much of  the Army and matériel from reaching Europe. During the period before and during the war, the US Merchant Fleet lost 339,0691 gross tonnage across all vessels. By comparison, the British empire lost over 7,662,0001 gross tonnage, making the losses of the US Merchant Fleet trivial by comparison. Today, the British Merchant Fleet numbers over 30 million gross weight tonnage.

World War I demonstrated the vulnerability of not having sufficient merchant marine strength. By not being able to move troops and supplies to the theater of war, the US was reliant on Allies and Foreign fleets.

Senator Wesley Jones,  chair of the US Senate Committee on Commerce from 1919 to 1930,. introduced the Bill that would later become known as the Jones Act. The Act itself was part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. It’s been revised many times and has been waived in times of emergency to deliver aid.

What were the goals of the Jones Act?

Jone’s stated reasons for the Act were:

  • It was in the strategic interest of the US to support US shipyards and to maintain repair capability
    • Maintain a US merchant marine workforce & US crews
    • Control a  commercial fleet to supplement the military in the event of a conflict2
  • Jones asserted that costs to build ships in the US were comparable to England, and thus was commercially viable

Although the US public was virtually unaware of the Jones Act, there were those opposed to the bill. Among those were:

  • Businessmen and chambers of commerce of all stripes who feared that shipping costs would increase. Turns out that they were right
  • Ports and harbors feared that the Jones Act would drive foreign ships from US ports, and take profits with them.
  • Many Politicians were against the idea of Government getting into the business of owning ships. The Emergency Fleet Corporation, established by the United States Shipping Board, would directly acquire and own US merchant fleet vessels.
  • Foreign fleets, such as Norway, that would lose routes between the West Indies and US Ports, as well as passenger service between US ports and Norway, were also against the Act.

    Jones responded to his detractors by Accusing them to be supporting foreign countries. He claimed that Government ownership of ships was less burdensome than Government ownership and operation of the railroads.. President Wilson had taken over the railroads as part of the Railroad Control Act. The railroads were returned to their owners in March 1920.

    Jones didn’t try to hide his protectionist leanings, however, and even went so far as to state in August 1920, “It is said that this bill will drive foreign ships from our ports. Granted. I want to do it.”

    We see this type of attacks  from Democratic Party leaders in 2022, most notably President Biden who blames “Extreme MAGA activists” for opinions he and the Administration don’t like. He assaults free speech and wants to outlaw it under the guise of “hate speech’. 

Enough of the parallels between 1920 and 2022.

What’s been the impact?

So what has happened since the Jones Act was signed into law over 100 years ago? One would imagine that the US Merchant fleet would be the largest, strongest and best equipped in the world. 

Certainly eclipsing the British Merchant Fleet of 30 million tons. The UK economy has a Gross Domestic Product of $3.3 Trillion against the US’s GDP of 25 Trillion. By simple back of the envelope math, our Merchant Marine should be at least 225 million tons .

Well, unfortunately, this has not been the case. Today, the number of Jones Act ships has declined to a miniscule 95 vessels.

Chart displaying the number and type of Jones Act Complaint Vessels
Number of Jones Act Compiant Vessels – 2022

Intended to give advantage to American ships over US trade with other countries, the share of our Nation’s international trade carried out today on U.S.-flagged ships has been reduced to 2%. According to the Cato Institute, that is a decline from a high of 92.5 percent in 1826

What about US shipbuilding, surely that is still strong? Well, not exactly. Most US shipbuilding is focused on barges and tug boats. This has come about because it costs 8 times more to build a ship in the US than other countries. For example, a coastal ship built in the US can cost a staggering $190 to $250 million. A comparable vessel can be made in a foreign country like China or South Korea for $30 million,.

The effect of the Jones Act has been to make our most dangerous enemy, China, a world leader in shipbuilding, while reducing the US ship industry to a joke.

How about shipping costs? Surely the Jones act has been able to help us with port to port shipping costs, because we can keep low cost foreign competitors out of our markets? (Haha, that was a joke). Well, as you would expect, no. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration, “Comparison of U.S. and Foreign‐​Flag Operating Costs,” September 2011, US flagged ships cost over $21 thousand per day to operate, as compared to $9,500 per day for a foreign flagged containership. What have our administrations done for the last 100 years to correct this imbalance? Nothing except to make it worse.

As a result of these higher costs, and lack of vessels due to the Jones Act, most cargo today is transported by land across America via rail or truck. The costs and impacts for rail and truck transport are enormous, and higher than by water routes. These costs are born by American consumers and tax payers. Rail and truck traffic cause  majority of wear and tear on our bridges, highways and railways due to their high gross vehicle weight capacity.

Although trucks make up 10% of vehicle traffic, they are responsible for 70% of maintenance and repair costs.  This is in contrast to the cheaper and less polluting way to move freight by water.

  • According to the World Shipping Council, Maritime shipping produces approximately 10–40 grams of carbon dioxide to carry one ton of cargo one kilometer. Rail transport produces 20–150 grams, and trucking produces 60–150 grams.
  • Ready for some more horrendous facts about the Jones Act:
    • Although the US has a vast reservoirs of Natural Gas, we have zero Liquefied Natural Gas tankers to transport LNG from the Gulf of Mexico ports, where the LNG is, to the east or west coasts where LNG is needed. In addition, the Biden Administration shut down all pipeline construction, including the Keystone XL which would have brought plentiful Canadian oil to refineries in the US.
    • Another fact. The US has closed over 300 shipyards since 1980.

Today 1% of ships are made in US. 9 out of 10 of those are barges or tug boats

  • How about transit of troops during war? One of the key lessons coming out of WWI was that we needed a strong Merchant Marine to move  our fighters to the parts of the world where they are needed.

    During operation desert shield and desert storm, foreign flagged vessels carried twice the amount of cargo as did us flagged ships. In fact, US requested the use of two ships from Moscow?

When has the Jones Act been waived?

  • The Jones Act has been Waived in times of emergency, when politicians receive pressure from constituents to solve supply chain disruption caused by diasaster. Here are some examples:
    • 2005 for 18 days the Jones Act was waived following Hurricane Katrina (by then Republican President George Bush.
    • In 2012 the Jones Act was suspended for three weeks in response to Superstorm Sandy. Per Secretary Janet Nepalitano, “Jones Act was suspended immediately to allow additional oil tankers coming from the Gulf of Mexico to enter Northeastern ports, to provide additional fuel resources to the region” This was part of a deal Barack Obama made with Republican NJ Governor Chris Christie, who for some reason, hosted the Democratic President who was running for re-election at the time. This PR campaign helped ensure the re-election of Barack Obama, and defeated Mitt Romney.
    •  The Jones act was waived again 5 years lanter, in 2017 for Puerto Rico by Republican President Donald Trump. This was in response to the need for Hurricane relief to the island.
  • Given the state of affairs in the US in May of 2022, surely the Jones Act should be waived? With the current supply chain woes, inflation, war with Russia and high fuel prices,  pressure would be relieved with the supply of plentiful oil and natural gas from the gulf coast to the refineries on the East and West coasts.
    • Instead, The Biden Adminstration, has doubled down on the Jones Act.
    • The truth is that the Biden Administration have no interest in lowering fuel prices. If they did, they would waive the Jones Act indefinitely, speed approve needed pipelines and encourage oil and gas producers to drill more wells. Instead, the Biden Administration has terminated badly needed pipelines and refused to renew oil leases, and cancelling all new drilling permits.
  • The Biden administration does not care about the environment – if they did, they would support port to port shipping, as it is greener than rail or highway transport. In fact, the US’s bridges and railways would be in far better shape with less reliance on trucking. The reality is that the Biden administration prefers the support of unions and special interests over the needs of everyday AMericans. That’s what they care about. The environment is immaterial to them – simply a useful pawn to gain votes from the green constituency.

Who else benefits from the Jones Act? A very small minority of the population:

  • Maritime workers
  • Unions such as the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association
  • US Shipyards, such as Bollinger Shipyards and Edison Chouest Offshore
  • US tank barge operators such as Kirby Corp.

It’s time for Americans like you, dear listener, to call your congressional representatives and request that the Jones Act be removed from law immediately so that we can rebuild our merchant marine, get needed oil and gas to our refineries and end the daily misery of Americans who are paying too much at the pump.

Or you can ignore this warning, and continue to support Chinese shipbuilding, reduce our capability to move troops and increase fuels costs. Its not as if there is a land war in Europe.

Check out more posts regarding the history of U.S. Government failures here


1 Salter, J. A. Allied Shipping Control, pages 355-359. Oxford (Clarendon Press), 1921.

2 https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45725


U.S. Congress. United States Code: Merchant Marine Act, 46 U.S.C. §§ 861-889 1958. 1958. Periodical. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/uscode1958-009046024/>.

World Shipping Council, “Industry Issues, Carbon Emissions,” 2015, http://​www​.world​ship​ping​.org/​i​n​d​u​s​t​r​y​-​i​s​s​u​e​s​/​e​n​v​i​r​o​n​m​e​n​t​/​a​i​r​-​e​m​i​s​s​i​o​n​s​/​c​a​r​b​o​n​-​e​m​i​s​sions.

The Cato Institute: https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/jones-act-burden-america-can-no-longer-bear#

Figure 1: Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017, EIA US DOE, Russian Energy Ministry



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