Donald Trump has said that “trade wars are good, and easy to win”. I posted on the issue of protectionism in the wake of his election victory here, and on ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ policies here, and stand by my arguments.
Contrary to the claims of mainstream economics, free trade is not always mutually beneficial for the nations involved. In particular, the historical record suggests that particular ‘infant’ industries in developing countries can benefit from temporary and selective protection, until they are competitive enough to succeed on world markets.
There are plenty of examples of infant industry protection which have failed, so it is by no means a universal panacea. Success requires the management of a particular balance of power in a developing country between particular groups such as the state and social classes, which might include emerging industrial leaders or the middle class. It will also be context-specific: it depends on the historical evolution of the groups and society involved.
Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium imports are not an example of protecting an infant industry. They may protect some jobs in those sectors, but most economists argue that by increasing the costs of these products as inputs for other industries, many more jobs will be lost in the latter, so that the net employment impact will be negative. Continue reading