I first came across the "infant industry argument" during my A-level economics class at Bearwood College. It was forever imprinted on my memory as an absurd excuse by inefficient states for protectionism. We were taught that the process to good economic development was through free trade and more importantly history and theory supported it. Of course since then I have come across fantastic papers that debunk the one sided nature of the free trade indoctrination, with Robert Driskill's `Deconstructing the argument for free trade' probably being among the best of them. However, it remains the case that this simplistic and biased view of free trade continues to dominate current development economic thinking and media punditry. Such is the scale of the challenge that the brilliant South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang seeks to overcome in this entertaining and highly readable book. In my view the book successfully demolishes the free trade and economic development myths that are perpetuated by "neo-liberal economists" and the "bad Samaritan" institutions of the IMF, World Bank and WTO and their supporting governments.
Anyone preaching a different doctrine of development from the "neo-liberal" brigade is naturally declared a heretic and consigned to the periphery of mainstream economic thought. Not Ha-Joon Chang. A renowned development economist, who has worked as a consultant for the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, various UN agencies and many governments around the world. A recipient of the prestigious Leontief Prize and good friend of Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Professor Chang has published many articles on the subject, including the critically acclaimed 'Kicking Away the Ladder - Development Strategy in Historical Perspective'. If anyone knows how the South East Asian miracle was born and any lessons it holds for poor nation, it is Chang.
Bad Samaritans aims to reverse the conventional wisdom and logic about development, especially the "official narrative" about how rich countries became prosperous and the implications it has for the advice being provided by the IMF / World Bank to developing nations like Zambia. By taking an in-depth look at the history and policies of developed nations, Bad Samaritans successfully demolishes the current free trade model of economic development and in its place erects a pragmatic and reasonable alternative. There are many important points raised in the book, but four critical conclusions are worth highlighting in this short space.
First, history rejects "free trade" and supports the "infant industry" argument as a model for development. According to Bad Samaritans, the "official version" of free trade globalisation is that Britain and the USA have been long adherents of free trade and this was responsible for their march towards growth and prosperity. Chang demonstrates that not only did these economies and other European nations emerge from protectionism, which they have denied developing countries, but they often imposed free trade on weaker countries to perpetuate their inbuilt advantages. To make matters worse (or better depending on your stand point), virtually all successful economies, developed and developing, got where they are through selective and strategic integration with the world economy rather than through unconditional global integration. Crucially, according to Chang, the performance of the developing countries was much better when they had a large amount of policy autonomy during the 'bad old days' of state-led industrialisation than when they were totally deprived of it during the first globalisation (in the era of colonial rule and unequal treaties) or when they had much less policy autonomy (as in the past quarter of a century).
Second, economic theory, properly understood demonstrates the limited nature of free trade theory and lends credence to the infant industry argument. The modern argument for free trade is based on the Heckscher -Ohlin-Samuelson (HOS) argument where comparative advantage is derived from differences in endowment of key factors of production, with each country specialising on those things where it has a relative advantage. Under the HOS theory free trade is beneficial, even in the face of protectionism (i.e. unilateral free trade) because the country concentrates on what it's good at and imports the rest. The basic flaws of this theory are well understood and include issues related to immobility of economic factors of production and weak compensation mechanisms of losers from trade. Where Chang deals it a fatal blow is the cogent argument that the theory is about efficiency in the short run use of given resources and not about increasing available resources through economic development in the long run (which is what we really want). In the words of Chang, "contrary to what [free trade] proponents would have us believe, free trade theory does not tell us that free trade is good for economic development". Underline the phrase "economic development".
Thirdly, the path to development lies in sacrificing today's pleasure for long term benefit. The current free trade globalisation, according to Bad Samaritans, is built on a false premise that effective economic development embodies certain key requirements: privatisation of state utilities; unrestricted FDI; very low inflation; balancing the budget (no deficits!); deregulated capital markets; fully convertible currencies; thriving democracy; and, zero tolerance on corruption. Bad Samaritans provides evidence that contradicts each of these requirements. In particular, Chang shows that had countries such as South Korea and Japan followed these policies early on in their economic development, their industries would have been wiped out by external competition. Japan and South Korean would have remained as developing states rather than the economic powerhouses that we see today. By extension, if developing countries are to advance economically they need to rely on a different model to that proposed by the neo-liberal framework. It is important for developing countries to "defy the market" and deliberately promote economic activities that will raise their productivity in the long run -- mainly, though not exclusively, manufacturing industries. Chang argues that this process involves capability-building, which, in turn, requires sacrificing certain short-term gains for the sake of raising long-term productivity (and thus standards of living) -- possibly for decades.
Finally, if developed nations really want to help developing countries they should accept asymmetric protection. According to Chang, the proper role of developed countries and institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and the WTO, is to get out of the way of developing countries and more importantly accept asymmetric protection for developing states. Neo-liberal, free trade policies serve only to impede and kill off long-term development efforts. Rather than allow developing economies to nurture and grow their home-grown "infant industries," free trade policies encourage developing countries to focus their economies on less-productive activities such as agriculture which bring gains only in the short run. True economic development, according to Chang, follows from emulating and mastering advanced foreign technologies, applying them to manufacturing, and protecting national industries from foreign competition for a long time. It is decades before such efforts will bear measurable fruit but Chang argues there is no other viable path to an industrialized economy. The challenge for bad Samaritan nations is to give developing countries headroom for them to grow.
These are very fundamental and radical conclusions from a book that is buried in evidence and yet profoundly easy to read. However, there are one or two places where the lack of detail leaves Chang with the need to return to them in the future. One particular area that was glaringly noticeable is the discussion of state led capitalism. While Bad Samaritans ably demonstrates the many flaws with various IMF / World Bank engineered privatisation programs and offers examples of where state owned companies have been successful (e.g. Singapore Airlines) it largely repeats what has already been documented elsewhere. The book would have been more useful discussing what sort of ownership or organisational structures that can be pursued to make for successful state led enterprises. For example, why is Singapore Airlines very successful and other state airlines have failed? Then there's the all issue of "strategic industries". How does one go about distinguishing areas where the state should or should not consider direct production? I was also slightly disappointed that Chang failed to mention the complicated problem of government taking part in markets where other players already exists and the problems that has for regulation. These are probably issues beyond the scope of the book, but nevertheless pertinent to visioning how Chang's advice can be applied at the country level.
Reading Bad Samaritans and the conclusions inevitably fills one with hope and despair. The despair stems from that it seems like perhaps we are condemned to a different economic fate by the powerful nations that make the rules of international engagement. After all, changing how the bad Samaritans interact with Africa is a slow, if not an impossible task. Chang shows not only that these richer nations have double standards in dealing with ailing nations, but they are systematically erecting an international system of trade that is not to our advantage e.g. preventing African governments from accessing new technology through perverse patent systems. One can't help but wonder whether the obstacles, however inadvertent, are just too many against African countries. Read more ›