Jobs, Not Shopping

Original Publication Date: 
1 Marzo, 2009

Three sacred cows have dominated the market fundamentalist religion of the last 25 years: balanced budgets, private ownership and free trade. Two have recently been sacrificed to reality. Balanced budgets went first, as countries dived into deficit spending without debate to fend off the recession. Belief in private ownership is faltering too, as country after country nationalises its banks.
 
Faith in free trade, however, is holding out, just about. The major economies are slowly but surely raising protectionist barriers through subsidies and local procurement programmes, yet free-market economists warn us that any moves to protectionism will trigger a trade war, and destroy the world trading system, as happened in the 1930s.
 
This is a misreading of history. The depression-era shift to protectionism was much less dramatic than is often claimed. The conventional story says that the world trading system collapsed because the US introduced the Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930. But this was not a radical shift in policy. America had been the most protectionist country in the world for the previous century, while Smoot-Hawley (pictured, below right) only raised average industrial tariffs from about 37 per cent to about 48 per cent, well within the historical range of US tariffs until then. Tariffs in other countries did rise after 1930, but only moderately, and economic historians have shown that trade shrinkage after the depression had more to do with shrinking demand and the drying-up of trade credits.
 
Of course, an all-out trade war would not help the world economy recover. Thankfully, at least in the short run, there is no danger of such a thing happening. Unlike in the 1930s, we have the World Trade Organisation, the EU and many regional trade agreements to limit the protections that countries can deploy. Countries will cheat within the boundaries of these agreements, but they can do only so much.
 
Moreover, the “1930s: never again” story assumes that protectionism is always bad. But this is not true either. Unlike in finance, where things can be speedily re-arranged, the real economy takes time to adjust. Producers must build new factories, and invest in new technologies. Workers must acquire new skills and find new jobs. When big adjustments are needed, temporary protectionism helps to create the breathing space for companies and workers to reinvent themselves.
 
There are other good reasons to consider limited measures to protect domestic economies. Textbook trade theory says that making countries more and more specialised is an unquestionable good. But this isn’t always true. Britain, for instance, probably over-specialised in finance over the last few decades, while neglecting manufacturing. The international division of labour should be balanced against the need for a broadly based economy, capable of protecting countries and their people against shocks to a particular industry. Voters in advanced countries, meanwhile, might well be willing to swap a little more job stability for slightly more expensive goods in their shops.
 
Such mild protectionism can be explicitly time limited. Indeed, evidence after the 1970s oil shocks shows that countries like Japan and Sweden that had specific and time-bound protectionism bounced back more quickly than others, like the US, where measures were hidden but more pervasive. The danger today is that we will pretend to believe in free trade, while practising protectionism by other names—just recall Peter Mandelson’s £2.5bn auto industry rescue: “not a bailout,” he said, but a “greening” initiative.
 
To avoid destroying the legitimacy of the global trading system we urgently need an international agreement, at least an informal one, that sets out some broad rules for this transparent and time-bound protectionism for adjustment purposes.
Emphasising the need to create a more transparent mechanism for the use of “adjustment protectionism” is not to suggest that everything else is fine with the current system. There is another kind of protection which needs to be allowed—one that allows developing countries relief from outside competition while they acquire new technologies and train their workers in new skills.
 
Such protection, known as “infant industry protection,” was practised by virtually all of today’s rich countries—starting with 18th-century Britain, through 19th-century US, Germany and Sweden, to 20th-century Japan, Korea, Taiwan—as I show in my books, Kicking Away the Ladder and Bad Samaritans.
 
Despite their own history, over the past quarter century rich countries have done their best to make it increasingly difficult for developing countries to use infant industry protection measures. They have pressed for trade liberalisation as a condition for the aid they give, and for the loans from the international financial organisations that they control. They have pushed for greater restrictions on tariffs, subsidies, regulations on foreign investment and other measures that developing countries need in order to promote their infant industries. This practice has to stop—and, ideally, be reversed.
 
The reality is that free trade has never worked very well, especially for developing countries, but it is going to malfunction even more in the coming years. Rather than trying to nurse this ailing sacred cow back to health, we should slaughter it —and concentrate our energy on designing a new system of international trade that pragmatically mixes free trade and protectionism.