One of the most famous documents in the history of free-trade literature is 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?
Thank goodness we wouldn’t fall for such nonsense today. Or would we?
We may be about to find out. Makers of solar panels have petitioned the U.S. Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission to slap tariffs on imported Chinese panels. Christopher Joyce of NPR reports that Gordon Brinser, CEO of Solar World, complains that U.S. manufacturers can't compete with cheaper Chinese imports. The Chinese panels aren't free; but just as Bastiat's candlemakers complained, the competition is hard to counter.
Perhaps the comparison is unfair. After all, the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing isn't asking for protection from the sun, only from Chinese panel producers who are allegedly “dumping” panels into the American market “at artificially low prices.”
What’s the difference, though? 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. Let's hope the uncompetitive solar panel manufacturers get told to go build a better mousetrap.
More on "antidumping" laws here.