There are lots of reasons Washington should not bail out the automakers. Whatever the justification for saving financial institutions -- the "lifeblood" of the economy, etc., etc. -- saving selected industrial enterprises is lemon socialism at its worst. The idea that the federal government will be able to engineer an economic turnaround is, well, the sort of economic fantasy that unfortunately dominates Capitol Hill these days.
One obvious problem is that legislators now have a great excuse to micromanage the automakers. And they have already started. After all, if the taxpayers are providing subsidies, don't they deserve to have dealerships, lots of dealerships, just down the street? That's what our Congresscritters seem to think.
Observes Stephen Chapman of the Chicago Tribune:
The Edsel was one of the biggest flops in the history of car making. Introduced with great fanfare by Ford in 1958, it had terrible sales and was junked after only three years. But if Congress had been running Ford, the Edsel would still be on the market.
That became clear last week, when Democrats as well as Republicans expressed horror at the notion that bankrupt companies with plummeting sales would need fewer retail sales outlets. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., led the way, asserting, "I honestly don't believe that companies should be allowed to take taxpayer funds for a bailout and then leave it to local dealers and their customers to fend for themselves."
Supporters of free markets can be grateful to Rockefeller for showing one more reason government shouldn't rescue unsuccessful companies. As it happens, taxpayers are less likely to get their money back if the automakers are barred from paring dealerships. Protecting those dealers merely means putting someone else at risk, and that someone has been sleeping in your bed.
The Constitution guarantees West Virginia two senators, and Rockefeller seems to think it also guarantees the state a fixed supply of car sellers. "Chrysler is eliminating 40 percent of its dealerships in my state," he fumed, "and I have heard that GM will eliminate more than 30 percent." This development raises the ghastly prospect that "some consumers in West Virginia will have to travel much farther distances to get their cars serviced under warranty."
Dealers were on hand to join the chorus. "To be arbitrarily closed with no compensation is wasteful and devastating," said Russell Whatley, owner of a Chrysler outlet in Mineral Wells, Texas.
Lemon socialism mixed with pork barrel politics! Could it get any worse? Don't ask: after all, this is Washington, D.C.