The Corner

Buying American

I have a question for my fellow free-trading Cornerites: What exactly is wrong with buy American campaigns? I fully understand and agree that as a matter of public policy such campaigns are inadvisable. When the government imposes buy American laws it’s little more than a tax on consumers and a tarrif against trading partners.

But as a matter of culture-politics, what’s wrong with asking Americans to spend a larger share of their ample disposable income on American products? We already put a premium on specific brands, styles etc. We think — not necessarily correctly — that Cuban cigars, Polish Vodka, Swiss Chocolate, Czech nude models etc — are worth paying extra for. Gucci bags sell more than their knock-offs precisely because American women are determined that their friends and enemies know how much they overpaid for them.

I understand that a buy American campaign fundamentally rewards a certain level of inefficiency by telling producers they can make a slightly worse product than their foreign competitors’ and still win in the market. But certainly in the areas of fashion and food similar incentives already exist (again: Gucci bags). So it’s not so much a case as creating inefficiencies based on consumer preference as switching to other inefficiencies based on other consumer preferences. Wouldn’t it be better if the consumers generally preferred American-made stuff?

One danger I can already anticipate is that in America, in the age of mass politics, it would be very difficult to deny the public their desire to translate public sentiment into public law. But what is the economic argument against this? Ramesh? Andrew?


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