Next, the Sun

The Obama administration has acted to protect Americans from cheap access to solar energy, imposing tariffs of 31 percent and even 250 percent on solar cells and panels imported from China.

As I noted previously, this case echoes one of the most famous documents in the history of free-trade literature, Bastiat’s famous ”Candlemakers’ Petition.” In that parody, the French economist and parliamentarian imagined the makers of candles and street lamps petitioning the French Chamber of Deputies for protection from a most dastardly foreign competitor:

You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

We come to offer you a wonderful opportunity… .

We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival … is none other than the sun.

For after all, Bastiat’s petitioners noted, how can the makers of candles and lanterns compete with a light source that is totally free? Chinese solar panels aren’t free, but they’re inexpensive enough to be attractive to American buyers.

Any source that supplies solar panels to American consumers and businesses is a competitor of the American industry. And any source that can deliver any product cheaper than American companies is a tough competitor. Domestic producers will no doubt gain by imposing a tariff on their Chinese competitors. But companies that install solar power will lose, by having to pay higher prices for panels.

Businesses would always prefer a world without competitors. If they can’t outcompete their rivals in the marketplace, they may be tempted to ask the government for protection. And our “antidumping” laws actually invite such complaints. But economists agree that consumers, and the businesses that use imported products, lose more on net than producers gain. Protectionism is a bad deal for the American economy. And in this case, a bad deal for anyone who wants to see more solar energy in the United States.

More on “antidumping” laws here.