In various papers I've written, I'm sure I have made the point that prior to the GATT, world tariffs were around 40%, and the GATT/WTO brought them down from there to much lower levels. I suspect others have done the same.
But Chad Bown and Doug Irwin have a new paper telling us that figure is wrong:
This paper has attempted to shed light on the height of tariff barriers on the eve of the 1947 Geneva conference that established the GATT and negotiated the first postwar tariff reductions. We find that the average tariff among the key GATT participants – the United States, Western Europe, and Japan – was about 22 percent at the time of the first Geneva conference, significantly lower than the oft-reported 40 percent figure (World Bank, 1987). This figure refers to the unweighted tariff average; the import-weighted tariff average would be much lower than this. ...
A shorter version of the argument, over at vox, is here.
One interesting caveat they offer (in Table 1) is the following: "Data not available for 1947 GATT Contracting Parties Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Pakistan, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Syria." Perhaps, then, there is more refinement to be done, but for now, I'm going with the 22 percent figure.