Yesterday the U.S. House passed by voice vote a resolution praising the captain and crew of the U.S.-flagged ship Maersk Alabama that was seized by Somali pirates earlier this month. It was a riveting story that ended well for the brave crew and their Captain Richard Phillips, thanks to the work of Navy Seal sharpshooters. But one question that has yet to be adequately discussed is just what that ship was doing over in such dangerous waters off the coast of strife-torn Somalia.
The answer may surprise you: the U.S. government sent them there.
The ship and its American crew of 20 were delivering U.S.-government food aid to Africa. Under the Food Security Act of 1985, food aid sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development must in most cases be delivered by U.S.-owned, flagged and crewed ships. The law is one of several, including the Jones Act, that are designed to steer business to generally high-cost U.S. shipping companies.
The laws in that narrow sense have worked: While 95 percent of international cargo arriving in the United States each year is carried by lower-cost, non-U.S.-flagged ships, 83 percent of U.S.-sponsored food-aid cargo is carried by U.S.-flagged ships. [You can read a WTO critique of U.S. cargo shipping preference programs beginning on page 121 of its 2008 review of U.S. trade policy.]
Such laws are anti-competitive and cost U.S. companies and taxpayers millions of dollars a year in higher shipping costs. But the case of the Maersk Alabama reveals another unintended cost. Almost by definition, food aid goes to regions troubled by war, civil strife and oppressive governments. The Food Security Act essentially requires American civilians to be inserted into dangerous places, which creates yet another inviting target for pirates and another argument for a U.S. military presence.
The U.S. government could ship its official cargo at lower costs, and keep civilian American citizens out of harm’s way, by repealing all its protectionist, anti-competitive cargo preference laws.