Chalmers Johnson on the Myth of Free Trade
Posted on Jan 24, 2008
Ha-Joon Chang is a Cambridge economist who specializes in the abject poverty of the Third World and its people, groups, nations, and empires, and their doctrines that are responsible for this condition. He won the Gunnar Myrdal Prize for his book “Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective” (2002), and he shared the 2005 Wassily Leontief Prize for his contributions to “Rethinking Development in the 21st Century.” The title of his 2002 book comes from the German political economist Friedrich List, who in 1841 criticized Britain for preaching free trade to other countries while having achieved its own economic supremacy through high tariffs and extensive subsidies. He accused the British of “kicking away the ladder” that they had climbed to reach the world’s top economic position. Chang’s other, more technical books include “The Political Economy of Industrial Policy” (1994) and “Reclaiming Development: An Economic Policy Handbook for Activists and Policymakers” (2004).
His new book is a discursive, well-written account of what he calls the “Bad Samaritans,” “people in the rich countries who preach free markets and free trade to the poor countries in order to capture larger shares of the latter’s markets and preempt the emergence of possible competitors. They are saying ‘do as we say, not as we did’ and act as Bad Samaritans, taking advantage of others who are in trouble.” “Bad Samaritans” is intended for a literate audience of generalists and eschews the sort of exotica that peppers most economic writing these days—there is not a single simultaneous equation in the book and many of Chang’s examples are taken from his own experiences as a South Korean born in 1963.
Ha-Joon Chang’s life is conterminous with his country’s advance from being one of the poorest on Earth—with a 1961 yearly income of $82 per person, less than half the $179 per capital income in Ghana at that time—to the manufacturing powerhouse of today, with a 2004 per capita income of $13,980. South Korea did not get there by following the advice of the Bad Samaritans. Chang’s prologue contains a wonderful account of how post-Korean War trade restrictions and governmental supervision fostered such projects as POSCO (Pohang Iron and Steel Co.), which began life as a state-owned enterprise that was refused support from the World Bank in a country without any iron ore or coking coal and with a prohibition on trade with China. Now privatized, POSCO is the world’s third largest steel company. This was also the period in which Samsung subsidized its infant electronics subsidiaries for over a decade with money made in textiles and sugar refining. Today Samsung dominates flat-panel TVs and cell phones in much of East Asia and the world.
Chang remembers quite clearly that as a student “We learned that it was our patriotic duty to report anyone seen smoking foreign cigarettes. The country needed to use every bit of foreign exchange earned from its exports in order to import machines and other inputs to develop better industries.” He is frankly contemptuous of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s best-seller “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” (2000) and its argument that Toyota’s Lexus automobile represents the rich world brought about by neoliberal economics whereas the olive tree stands for the static world of no or low economic growth. The fact is that had the Japanese government followed the free-trade economists back in the early 1960s, there would have been no Lexus. Toyota today would be, at best, a junior partner to some Western car manufacturer or, worse, have been wiped out.
In Chang’s conception, there are two kinds of Bad Samaritans. There are the genuine, powerful “ladder-kickers” working in the “unholy trinity” of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Then there are the “ideologues—those who believe in Bad Samaritan policies because they think those policies are ‘right,’ not because they personally benefit from them much, if at all.” Both groups adhere to a doctrine they call “neoliberalism.” It became the dominant economic model of the English-speaking world in the 1970s and prevails at the present time. Neoliberalism (sometimes called the “Washington Consensus”) is a rerun of what economists suffering from “historical amnesia” believe were the key characteristics of the international economy in the golden age of liberalism (1870-1913).
Thomas Friedman calls this complex of policies the “Golden Straitjacket,” the wearing of which, no matter how uncomfortable, is allegedly the only route to economic success. The complex includes privatizing state-owned enterprises, maintaining low inflation, shrinking the size of the state bureaucracy, balancing the national budget, liberalizing trade, deregulating foreign investment, making the currency freely convertible, reducing corruption, and privatizing pensions. It is called neoliberalism because of its acceptance of rich-country monopolies over intellectual property rights (patents, copyrights, etc.), the granting to a country’s central bank of a monopoly to issue bank notes, and its assertion that political democracy is conducive to economic growth, none of which were parts of classical liberalism. The Golden Straitjacket is what the unholy trinity tries to force on poor countries. It is the doctrinal orthodoxy taught in all mainstream academic economics departments and for which numerous Nobel prizes in economics have been awarded.
In addition to being an economist, Ha-Joon Chang is a historian and an empiricist (as distinct from a deductive theorist working from what are stipulated to be laws of economic behavior). He notes that the histories of today’s rich countries contradict virtually all the Golden Straitjacket dicta, many of which are logically a result rather than a cause of economic growth (for example, trade liberalization). His basic conclusion: “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 go against neo-liberal economics.” All of today’s rich countries used protection and subsidies to encourage their manufacturing industries, and they discriminated powerfully against foreign investors. All such policies are anathema in today’s economic orthodoxy and are now severely restricted by multilateral treaties, like the WTO agreements, and proscribed by aid donors and international financial organizations, particularly the IMF and the World Bank.
Chang offers some fascinating vignettes of men and books that were infinitely more important in the economic development of the rich countries than Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.” These include a precis of a virtually unknown book by Daniel Defoe, “A Plan of the English Commerce” (1728), on Tudor industrial policy in developing England’s woolen manufacturing industry. As a result of many of Defoe’s ideas, manufactured woolen products became Britain’s most important export industry. Chang continues with a short life of Robert Walpole, the chief architect of the mercantilist system. By 1820, thanks to Walpole’s protectionist policies, Britain’s average tariff on manufactured imports was between 45 and 55 percent, whereas such tariffs were 6-8 percent in the Low Countries, 8-12 percent in Germany and Switzerland, and around 20 percent in France.
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