Infant industry protection

Ha-Joon Chang writes that almost all rich countries got wealthy by protecting infant industries and limiting foreign investment.

Once upon a time, the leading car-maker of a developing country exported its first passenger cars to the US. Until then, the company had only made poor copies of cars made by richer countries. The car was just a cheap subcompact (“four wheels and an ashtray”) but it was a big moment for the country and its exporters felt proud.

Unfortunately, the car failed. Most people thought it looked lousy, and were reluctant to spend serious money on a family car that came from a place where only second-rate products were made. The car had to be withdrawn from the US. This disaster led to a major debate among the country’s citizens. Many argued that the company should have stuck to its original business of making simple textile machinery. After all, the country’s biggest export item was silk. If the company could not make decent cars after 25 years of trying, there was no future for it. The government had given the car-maker every chance. It had ensured high profits for it through high tariffs and tough controls on foreign investment. Less than ten years earlier, it had even given public money to save the company from bankruptcy. So, the critics argued, foreign cars should now be let in freely and foreign car-makers, who had been kicked out 20 years before, allowed back again. Others disagreed. They argued that no country had ever got anywhere without developing “serious” industries like car production. They just needed more time.

The year was 1958 and the country was Japan…

Read the article here.

Ha-Joon Chang is the author of Kicking Away the Ladder: Policies and Institutions for Economic Development in Historical Perspective and the forthcoming Bad Samaritans—Rich Nations, Poor Policies and the Threat to the Developing World. 

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