A call FOR protectionism!

Free trade is an ideal. This is a theme of my IB Economics class which I emphasize repeatedly during year two of the course. Free trade, defined as the exchange of goods, services, resources, and financial assets based on the principle of comparative advantage, results in a more efficient allocation of the world’s resources, an increase in total world output and welfare, and increases the opportunity for growth and development for all countries that prescribe to its principles. This is the ideal, at least.

In the real world, free trade is rarely practiced. Free trade agreements between nations represent managed trade; the selected removal of protections such as tariffs, quotas and subsidies on the exchange of particular goods does not represent free trade, rather managed trade. The problem with free trade in the real world is simply that it has never been truly practiced, therefore the adjustments that both developed and developing countries would have to undergo to adopt widespread free trade would be extremely disruptive both economically and socially. Entire industries would disappear from the developed countries as manufacturing resources were reallocated to low cost countries. Poor countries trying to build their manufacturing industries would lose any competitive advantage offered by protectionism, forcing their “infant industries” to wither and die in the face of global competition from countries that long ago achieved economies of scale in manufacturing. Farmers used to heavy subsidies would see their livelihoods disappear as the world’s food would be sourced from the countries with true comparative advantages in agriculture. Simply stated, the social costs of the widespread adoption of free trade are not politically palatable, thus leaders have only hesitantly pursued this ideal on the world stage.

For decades, America has stood for the ideal of free trade, proselytizing its advantages and urging developing countries to reduce or remove their barriers to the free flow of resources and goods from nation to nation. Today, however, the United States faces the very fate free trade prophesized as its own automobile industries teeters on the edge of collapse. As many as 3 million American jobs stand to be lost if the auto industry goes under. Today, America faces the ultimate test of its will to stand for and defend free trade in the world. Should America erect new barriers to trade, bail out its auto industry, and save this dying sector from collapse to avoid the political hardships its death would incur? Or should America stand for the ideal of market liberalization and allow the auto industry to disolve as the principle of comparative advantage indicates it should?

The question is dire, and it’s one that Barack Obama will be forced to address early in his term as president. Cambridge economcis professor Ha-Joon Chang argues the case for protectionism by America in this time of economic turmoil:

Mr Obama’s trade policy… is already causing controversy. He has vowed to protect American jobs and even argued for re-negotiating the NAFTA. There is already some hand wringing among free-trade economists, worrying that his protectionist policies may destroy the world trading system in the same way the infamous Smoot-Hawley Tariffs of 1930 did after the Great Depression. They counsel that the US should maintain its historical commitment to free trade.However, contrary to what most people think, the US is the true home of protectionism. Between the 1830s and the 1940s, against superior European competition, the US developed its industries behind literally the highest tariff wall in the world, with the average industrial tariff rate ranging between 35% and 55%. Even the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs were not an aberration – the average US industrial tariff in 1931 was, at 48%, well within the historical range.

Moreover, the theory that justified such protectionism, namely, the ‘infant industry’ argument, had been first developed by none other than the first Treasury Secretary of the US – Alexander Hamilton (that’s the guy you see on the $10 bill). Hamilton argued that producers in relatively backward economies needed to be protected and nurtured through tariffs, subsidies, and other government policies before they mature and can compete with producers from more economically developed countries.

Of course, the protectionism that Mr Obama is advocating is protection to ease the adjustment of mature industries, rather than to promote infant industries. The case for such protectionism is not as overwhelming as that of infant industry protection. However, well-designed and time-bound protection of mature industries can facilitate, rather than hinder, trade adjustment and industrial upgrading. Japan and some European countries in the aftermath of the 1970s Oil Shocks come to mind.

Mr Obama should use protectionism in a similarly forward-looking way. Industries that can be revived through re-tooling of its factories and re-training of its workers should be given protection, but only if they fulfill certain conditions regarding investment and training. Industries that have no future should be given strictly temporary protection to ease phasing-out through orderly liquidation and redundancy.

…Keeping its market open is not enough for the US to play a genuinely positive role in the world trading system. The US should also stop pushing for trade liberalization in developing countries and give them the chance to use (intelligently-designed, of course) infant industry protection, which it invented and benefited so much from. Mr Obama should take a lead in creating a world trading system that allows asymmetric protectionism between the rich countries and the poor countries, with the latter protecting their markets more and gradually opening up in line with their economic development.

All these call for a much more activist role for the US government than it has been the norm. Providing protectionism to facilitate structural changes, and not just to protect existing jobs, would require a much closer coordination between trade policy and those policies to upgrade American industries, such as R&D support and worker training. Redesigning the welfare state as a vehicle to promote skills upgrading and labor mobility would push the US government into an uncharted territory.

These are big challenges. However, the US cannot continue its peculiar mixture of free-trade mythology and uncoordinated, ‘reactive’ protectionism that has served ordinary Americans and the developing nations so poorly.

Mr Obama has turned a new chapter in US history by becoming the country’s first Afro-American president. He will turn a new chapter in world history if he can come up with a forward-looking protectionist strategy that that both protects American jobs better in the long run and help developing countries develop faster.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between the protectionism America needs today and the protectionism it used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
  2. How could protectionism be used responsibly by developing countries to promote economic growth and development?
  3. Professor Chang argues that responsible protectionism should allow industries with no future to be phased out “through orderly liquidation and redundancy”. What does he mean by this and why is such a policy so hard to accomplish politically?

Originally published on November 17, 2008 at Welker’s Wikinomics Blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.