Skeptical Takes on Expansive Industrial Policy Efforts

by on March 15, 2021 · 0 comments

[Last updated 4/6/21]

Industrial Policy is a red-hot topic once again with many policymakers and pundits of different ideological leanings lining up to support ambitious new state planning for various sectors — especially 5G, artificial intelligence, and semiconductors. A remarkably bipartisan array of people and organizations are advocating for government to flex its muscle and begin directing more spending and decision-making in various technological areas. They all suggest some sort of big plan is needed, and it is not uncommon for these industrial policy advocates to suggest that hundreds of billions will need to be spent in pursuit of those plans.

Others disagree, however, and I’ll be using this post to catalog some of their concerns on an ongoing basis. Some of the criticisms listed here are portions of longer essays, many of which highlight other types of steps that governments can take to spur innovative activities. Industrial policy is an amorphous term with many definitions of a broad spectrum of possible proposals. Almost everyone believes in some form of industrial policy if you define the term broadly enough. But, as I argued in a September 2020 essay “On Defining ‘Industrial Policy,” I believe it is important to narrow the focus of the term such that we can continue to use the term in a rational way. Toward that end, I believe a proper understanding of industrial policy refers to targeted and directed efforts to plan for specific future industrial outputs and outcomes.

The collection of essays below is merely an attempt to highlight some of the general concerns about the most ambitious calls for expansive industrial policy, many of which harken back to debates I was covering in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I first started a career in policy analysis. During that time, Japan and South Korea were the primary countries of concern cited by industrial policy advocates. Today, it is China’s growing economic standing that is fueling calls for ambitious state-led targeted investments in “strategic” sectors and technologies. To a lesser extent, grandiose European industrial policy proposals are also prompting new US counter-proposals.

All this activity is what has given rise to many of the critiques listed below. If you have suggestions for other essays I might add to this list, please feel free to pass them along. FYI: There’s no particular order here.

Douglas Irwin, “Memo to the Biden administration on how to rethink industrial policy,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, October 2020.

The challenge for policymakers is to identify such industries without succumbing to the notion that every industry is vital to some public objective. For example, the goal of “economic security” is so broadly defined and open-ended that virtually every domestic producer could claim the need for government support on that basis. The risk is that ill-conceived government programs will encourage corrupt behavior in which industries benefit themselves without contributing to national welfare.

Jim Pethokoukis, “Will Biden’s embrace of industrial policy pay off?” AEI Blog, January 15, 2021.

The history of such efforts in advanced capitalist economies gives ample reason for skepticism about the effectiveness of such top-down government planning, from Japanese economic stagnation to the now-mothballed Concorde supersonic jet to France’s failed attempt to create a thriving tech sector. The Internet might seem like the exception that negates the rule, but what turned out to be a successful partnership of government and entrepreneurs didn’t arise out of some master plan from Washington. And what do even the smartest plans look like when filtered through the dodgy quality of American governance? Maybe as an excuse for cronyism and protectionism.

Adam Thierer & Connor Haaland, “Should the U.S. Copy China’s Industrial Policy?” Discourse, March 11, 2021.

America needs to embrace its already vibrant venture capital market, the benefits of basic science and prize competitions, and a light-touch regulatory approach instead of gambling taxpayer dollars on grandiose industrial policy schemes that would likely become boondoggles.

Connor Haaland & Adam Thierer, “Can European-Style Industrial Policies Create Tech Supremacy?Discourse, February 11, 2021.

Thus far, however, the Europeans don’t have much to show for their attempts to produce home-grown tech champions. Despite highly targeted and expensive efforts to foster a domestic tech base, the EU has instead generated a string of industrial policy failures that should serve as a cautionary tale for U.S. pundits and policymakers, who seem increasingly open to more government-steered innovation efforts.

Phil Levy & Christine McDaniel, “Does the U.S. Need a Vigorous Industrial Policy?” Discourse, February 16, 2021.

we are certainly hearing new enthusiasm these days about industrial policy. It seems to have proponents or converts on both sides of the aisle. This either means that a new consensus has emerged, or it means that the term is being used so loosely that it has lost its original meaning. I’ll go with the latter; it now means different things to different people.

Wall Street Journal columnist Greg Ip discussing why “The traditional skepticism toward industrial policy is well deserved.”

The traditional skepticism toward industrial policy is well deserved. Once Washington starts writing checks for semiconductors, other industries may get in line with the outcome determined more by political clout than economic merit. As in shipbuilding, the targeted companies may end up in perpetual need of federal protection and unable to compete internationally

David Ignatius, “The U.S. is quietly mobilizing its economy against China,” Washington Post, March 4, 2021.

The industrial policy the AI commission recommends could unlock talent and innovation. But if officials aren’t careful, government intervention could also afflict our best companies with the dead weight and dysfunction of our broken political system. We need government to spawn brainpower, not bureaucracy.

Veronique de Rugy, “Support for Industrial Policy is Growing,” AIER, January 18, 2020.

Looking at the federal government today tells me that the problems surrounding R&D programs in the past continue today, and will continue tomorrow, because they are simply a consequence of the normal functioning of government. It is hard to wish these problems away, even in the face of the private sector’s “imperfections.” Those arguing for more funding in R&D should proceed with caution.

This bill is proposing to give money with risk-averse restrictions to a risk-averse organization (the NSF) to be dispersed among other risk-averse organizations (Universities) into a system with increasingly risk-averse incentives. Note that I’m not saying “it’s all fubar’d lets burn it to the ground!” but I am suggesting that instead of slamming on the accelerator, we should be asking “what would a tune-up and an oil change look like instead?”

Ryan Bourne, “Do Oren Cass’s Justifications for Industrial Policy Stack Up?” Cato Commentary, August 15, 2019.

Oren Cass asserts that markets cannot generally allocate resources efficiently by industry. Yet he provides no meaningful metrics to show this is the case, nor shows why his policies would deliver better outcomes. His two main claims about the benefits of a manufacturing sector — “stable employment” and “strong productivity growth” — are directly contradictory. A plethora of evidence suggests as countries’ get richer due to automation and technological improvements, they demand relatively more services, and so the industrial sector declines in employment terms.

Scott Lincicome, “Manufactured Crisis: ‘Deindustrialization, Free Markets, and National Security,” Cato Policy Analysis No. 907, January 27, 2021.

This skepticism—mostly absent from Washington—is indeed warranted: analyses of the U.S. manufacturing sector and the relationship between trade and national security, as well as the United States’ long and checkered history of security‐​related protectionism, undermine the theoretical justifications for imposing protectionism and industrial policy in the name of national defense. Instead, open trade, freer markets, and global interdependence will in almost all cases produce better outcomes in terms of national security and, most importantly, preventing wars and other forms of armed conflict.

Matthew Lau, “Trudeau government’s ‘industrial policy’ creates all the wrong incentives,” Toronto Sun, March 16, 2021.

Yet another problem with industrial policy is cronyism. In a free market, businesses earn money by producing goods and services people demand, but when governments give handouts to politically favoured industries, businesses can instead get money by lobbying government for it. Therefore, industrial policy encourages businesses to produce less and lobby more.

If we want a robust economic recovery, we need higher economic productivity. Industrial policy invariably accomplishes the opposite by transferring economic decision-making from the market to politicians and bureaucrats who have less knowledge and weaker incentives to invest productively. The certain effect of the federal government’s economic strategy, therefore, will be to impede recovery rather than hasten it.

Alberto Mingardi & Deirdre McCloskey, “Not the ‘Entrepreneurial State,” AIER, Nov. 2, 2020.

Nils Karlson, Christian Sandström & Karl Wennberg, “Bureaucrats or Markets in Innovation Policy? – A Critique of the Entrepreneurial State,” The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 34, No. 1, (April 2020): 81-95.

we identify several deficiencies in the notion of an entrepreneurial state by showing that (i) there is weak empirical support in the many hundreds empirical studies and related meta analyses evaluating the effectiveness of active industrial and innovative policies, that (ii) these policies do not take account of the presence of information and incentive problems which together explain why attempts to address purported market failures often result in policy failures, and that (iii) the exclusive focus on knowledge creation through R&D and different forms of firm subsidies ignores the equally important mechanisms of knowledge dissemination and creation through commercial exploitation in markets.

Matthew D. Mitchell and Adam Thierer, “Industrial Policy is a Very Old, New Idea,” Discourse, April 6, 2021.

The primary problem with the targeted approach to economic development is that it depends on the use of government-granted privileges—discriminatory tax or regulatory relief, cash subsidies, loans and loan guarantees, in-kind donations or the provision of other valuable goods and services. In other words, governments are trying to pick winners.

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