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Protecting the global poor|
Almost all rich countries got wealthy by protecting infant industries and limiting foreign investment. But these countries are now denying poor ones the same chance to grow by forcing free-trade rules on them before they are strong enough
Ha Joon-Chang / July 28, 2007
Once upon a time, the leading car-maker of a developing country exported its first passenger cars to the US. Until then, the company had only made poor copies of cars made by richer countries. The car was just a cheap subcompact (“four wheels and an ashtray”) but it was a big moment for the country and its exporters felt proud.
Unfortunately, the car failed. Most people thought it looked lousy, and were reluctant to spend serious money on a family car that came from a place where only second-rate products were made. The car had to be withdrawn from the US. This disaster led to a major debate among the country’s citizens. Many argued that the company should have stuck to its original business of making simple textile machinery. After all, the country’s biggest export item was silk. If the company could not make decent cars after 25 years of trying, there was no future for it. The government had given the car-maker every chance. It had ensured high profits for it through high tariffs and tough controls on foreign investment. Less than ten years earlier, it had even given public money to save the company from bankruptcy. So, the critics argued, foreign cars should now be let in freely and foreign car-makers, who had been kicked out 20 years before, allowed back again. Others disagreed. They argued that no country had ever got anywhere without developing “serious” industries like car production. They just needed more time.
The year was 1958 and the country was Japan. The company was Toyota, and the car was called the Toyopet. Toyota started out as a manufacturer of textile machinery and moved into car production in 1933. The Japanese government kicked out General Motors and Ford in 1939, and bailed out Toyota with money from the central bank in 1949. Today, Japanese cars are considered as “natural” as Scottish salmon or French wine, but less than 50 years ago, most people, including many Japanese, thought the Japanese car industry simply should not exist.
Half a century after the Toyopet debacle, Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus has become an icon of globalisation, thanks to the American journalist Thomas Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree. The book owes its title to an epiphany that Friedman had in Japan in 1992. He had paid a visit to a Lexus factory, which deeply impressed him. On the bullet train back to Tokyo, he read yet another newspaper article about the troubles in the middle east, where he had been a correspondent. Then it hit him. He realised that “half the world seemed to be… intent on building a better Lexus, dedicated to modernising, streamlining and privatising their economies in order to thrive in the system of globalisation. And half of the world—sometimes half the same country, sometimes half the same person—was still caught up in the fight over who owns which olive tree.”
According to Friedman, countries in the olive-tree world will not be able to join the Lexus world unless they fit themselves into a particular set of economic policies he calls “the golden straitjacket.” In describing the golden straitjacket, Friedman pretty much sums up today’s neoliberal orthodoxy: countries should privatise state-owned enterprises, maintain low inflation, reduce the size of government, balance the budget, liberalise trade, deregulate foreign investment and capital markets, make the currency convertible, reduce corruption and privatise pensions. The golden straitjacket, Friedman argues, is the only clothing suitable for the harsh but exhilarating game of globalisation.
However, had the Japanese government followed the free-trade economists back in the early 1960s, there would have been no Lexus. Toyota today would at best be a junior partner to a western car manufacturer and Japan would have remained the third-rate industrial power it was in the 1960s—on the same level as Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
Had it just been Japan that became rich through the heretical policies of protection, subsidies and the restriction of foreign investment, the free-market champions might be able to dismiss it as the exception that proves the rule. But Japan is no exception. Practically all of today’s developed countries, including Britain and the US, the supposed homes of the free market and free trade, have become rich on the basis of policy recipes that contradict today’s orthodoxy.
In 1721, Robert Walpole, the first British prime minister, launched an industrial programme that protected and nurtured British manufacturers against superior competitors in the Low Countries, then the centre of European manufacturing. Walpole declared that “nothing so much contributes to promote the public wellbeing as the exportation of manufactured goods and the importation of foreign raw material.” Between Walpole’s time and the 1840s, when Britain started to reduce its tariffs (although it did not move to free trade until the 1860s), Britain’s average industrial tariff rate was in the region of 40-50 per cent, compared with 20 per cent and 10 per cent in France and Germany respectively.
The US followed the British example. In fact, the first systematic argument that new industries in relatively backward economies need protection before they can compete with their foreign rivals—known as the “infant industry” argument—was developed by the first US treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. In 1789, Hamilton proposed a series of measures to achieve the industrialisation of his country, including protective tariffs, subsidies, import liberalisation of industrial inputs (so it wasn’t blanket protection for everything), patents for inventions and the development of the banking system.
Hamilton was perfectly aware of the potential pitfalls of infant industry protection, and cautioned against taking these policies too far. He knew that just as some parents are overprotective, governments can cosset infant industries too much. And in the way that some children manipulate their parents into supporting them beyond childhood, there are industries that prolong government protection through clever lobbying. But the existence of dysfunctional families is hardly an argument against parenting itself. Likewise, the examples of bad protectionism merely tell us that the policy needs to be used wisely.
In recommending an infant industry programme for his young country, Hamilton, an impudent 35-year-old finance minister with only a liberal arts degree from a then second-rate college (King’s College of New York, now Columbia University) was openly ignoring the advice of the world’s most famous economist, Adam Smith. Like most European economists at the time, Smith advised the Americans not to develop manufacturing. He argued that any attempt to “stop the importation of European manufactures” would “obstruct… the progress of their country towards real wealth and greatness.”
Many Americans—notably Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state at the time and Hamilton’s arch-enemy—disagreed with Hamilton. They argued that it was better to import high-quality manufactured products from Europe with the proceeds that the country earned from agricultural exports than to try to produce second-rate manufactured goods. As a result, congress only half-heartedly accepted Hamilton’s recommendations—raising the average tariff rate from 5 per cent to 12.5 per cent.
In 1804, Hamilton was killed in a duel by the then vice-president Aaron Burr. Had he lived for another decade or so, he would have seen his programme adopted in full. Following the Anglo-American war in 1812, the US started shifting to a protectionist policy; by the 1820s, its average industrial tariff had risen to 40 per cent. By the 1830s, America’s average industrial tariff rate was the highest in the world and, except for a few brief periods, remained so until the second world war, at which point its manufacturing supremacy was absolute.