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Questions for Ian Fletcher

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9 March 2011

Mr. Ian Fletcher

Dear Ian:

In your latest essay at the Huffington Post you state that sensible protectionists, like you, want to use tariffs to protect, not “dying” industries, but, rather, only industries of “the future” (“Protectionism of the Past vs. Protectionism of the Future [2],” March 9).

Who but a backwoods bumpkin doesn’t cheer for the industries of “the future”?  But I’ve some questions.

– How do we identify such industries?  Who’ll be charged with determining which industries are of “the future” and which industries are sufficiently passé as to be left unshielded from being slain by foreign competition – slayings that you suppose are the inevitable fate of all U.S. industries not protected by high U.S. tariffs?

– What criteria will be used to distinguished industries of “the future” from what I suppose we ought to call “industries of the past”?  Rates of return on capital?  Total volume of employment?  Productivity per worker?  Rates of annual productivity growth?  Rates of export growth?  Total amount of corporate taxes paid?  The technological ‘wow-ness’ of the industries’ outputs – as determined, perhaps, by the amount of positive attention such outputs receive from nightly network news reporters?  The age of the industry?

Oh!  I know the answer: total dollar amount of contributions to the political campaigns of incumbent members of Congress and the U.S. presidency.

– In those inescapable instances when dispassionate minds, such as yours, discover that protection was mistakenly given to industries of the past that were for a time wrongly thought to be industries of the future, will the shareholders and workers in those industries, whose prosperity has for a long time been made possible only by the tariff protections that their industries received, gracefully accept the revised determination that they have all along been investing in, and working for, industries of the past and, therefore, must now lose their assets and jobs for the greater good?  What will you tell these poor workers, shareholders, and bondholders?

– Finally, if an industry really does have such a promising future that even government bureaucrats recognize this promise, why wouldn’t this same promise be recognized by private investors?  Seems as though it would.  And private investors, then, will pour sufficient amounts of private financing into this industry.  Isn’t it one of the central functions of private capital markets to identify – and to shower with liquidity – upstart firms that are likely to be parts of industries of “the future”?

I’m eager to receive your replies.

Donald J. Boudreaux