This is a follow up blog post to this one here, summarising some more thoughts I’ve had on Scott Alexander’s ‘The Price of Glee in China’ post and inspired by some of the discussion in the comments there.
I know this is a conversation from a month ago, so is now ancient history in blogging terms. This is why I’m not a very good blogger.
There’s a comment in the middle of my post that I sort of regret making because it was poorly worded and it’s not really crucial to the point I was trying to make, but lots of people who are presumably sympathetic to protectionist arguments seem to have fixated on it.
The phrase in question is this one: “there is nothing economically or morally relevant about political boundaries”
I have to apologise for the extremely poor wording on my part here. This phrase is not what I intended to say at all. That was sloppy. Sorry.
As pointed out by several other commenters on Scott’s post, politics does have a substantial effect on the economics of a country. In the most obvious ways, politics and politicians influence tax (and subsidy) rates and hiring practices / regulations (e.g. occupational licensing, minimum wage laws, the EU working time directive, etc. etc.). They also have a less direct influence through things such as health and education policy.
I don’t debate any of this. If someone got the wrong end of the stick from my previous post, I can totally understand why and again can only apologise for my sloppy phrasing.
Anyway, this all detracts from the main point I was trying to make in response to Scott’s post. So let me try to make that point again, hopefully in a clearer and more succinct way:
Scott summed up his argument as:
“If we were to actively try to keep the Indians from industrializing, that would be pretty awful. But that’s not the argument at hand here. The argument at hand is ‘are we morally required to sacrifice our own economy in order to help the Indians industrialize?”
My response to that is:
But that is the argument at hand here.
Put aside for the moment whether protectionist policies are generally a net positive or a net negative for the population (as a whole) of the country that enacts them. Put aside also whether protectionist policies are, in general, even effective at bringing about their stated aims. These are debates for another day.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that tariffs imposed by the US Government on imports of Indian steel helps American steelworkers, with no offsetting cost to any other Americans whatsoever. In other words, the tariffs are a net positive if we consider only the welfare of Americans.
The cost of this policy is paid entirely by Indian steel companies, who now find it more difficult to compete in the American market.
What is this policy if not an active intervention by the US Government which retards industry in India and harms the Indian economy?