Protectionism in a Can of Tuna

In an op-ed posted yesterday on Forbes, I praised a decision by the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body for recognizing the true nature of federal regulations that define what kind of tuna can be called dolphin-safe.  In one part of the ocean where the Mexican fishing fleet operates the rules are very strict, but everywhere else, including the parts of the ocean where the U.S. fishing fleet operates, tuna can be called dolphin safe without regard to whether dolphins were actually killed in the fishing process.

Rather than providing consumers with accurate information, as the government and other advocates contend, the consequence of the dolphin-safe labeling requirement is to provide discriminatory protection for the U.S. tuna industry by misleading those consumers.

The case highlights the reality that government is not a reliable guardian of consumer welfare, and that you invariably get more (or in this case less) than you bargained for when you put your faith in government mandated standards.  As I wrote in the op-ed:

Without this law, consumers would be free to demand tuna caught without setting on dolphins, or they might prefer to buy only tuna whose capture was certified as dolphin safe by an independent observer.  Under the current regime, tuna producers are completely prohibited from providing that information on product labels.  A policy designed to protect dolphins by harnessing the power of consumers depends on having informed consumers with access to all relevant information.  Consumers who want to protect dolphins from tuna fishers are not served by a law that actually protects U.S. tuna fishers from Mexican competition.

Abiding by international rules that promote free trade across borders is easily accomplished by adhering to the principles of free enterprise here at home.