The folly of green protectionism

Here’s a formula for you to study:

Green groups want less forestry in the developing world. Industry wants green protectionism to cut the volume of competitive imports. Unions want green protectionism to stop imports to ensure they can keep workers in high-paying jobs.

So using the environment as an excuse, we have these three groups colluding to further their own agendas.  Call it “green protectionism.”

 In a recent case it has been to keep toilet paper made in foreign countries out of Australia.

That’s right, toilet paper. 

Can anyone now figure, based on that formula, what the missing part of the equation might be? The part that is necessary to make such collusion pay off?

Yes, government. Certainly green groups can want less forestry in the developing world, and industry can wish for a way to cut the volume of competitive imports.  And unions always hope to ensure high paying jobs.

But only one entity can actually make all those wishes, wants and hopes come true. If government becomes involved it has the power to fulfill the wishes and hopes of these three disparate special interest groups.

That’s what happened in 2008 when two Australian toilet paper manufacturers, Kimberly Clark Australia and SCA Hygiene as well as the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the World Wildlife Fund essentially colluded to keep foreign manufactured toilet paper, primarily from Indonesia and China out of the country. Their ostensible complaint was those countries were “dumping” their product in Australia.

For a short time they succeeded in getting imports restricted by the Australian Customs Service, until, it seems, the ACS did a study to determine the validity of the complaint. Their findings were significant. The Australian Customs Service report calculated that the potential downward pressure of imports could be as high as 42 percent of the price.

In other words, the collusion would cost consumers in Australia 42% more because the competitive pressure that kept prices low would have been removed.  In addition, a recent report commissioned by the Australian government found that “illegally logged material” – one of the prime reasons these groups claimed Australia should ban imports of foreign wood products – only comprised 0.32 percent of the materials coming into Australia.  In other words, the threat was insignificant.

That’s Australia, but what about here?  Well, we’re hearing the same sorts of rumblings concerning “green protectionism”.

Sadly these campaigns appear to be part of a spreading green protectionist disease, where industry, unions and green groups work together. In the United States the disease was brought to life by the Lacey Act, which imposes extra regulation on imported wood and wood products to certify their origin and make them less competitive.

The Lacey Act is actually an update of a 1900 law that banned the import of illegally caught wildlife.  It now includes wood products (2008).  And that means, since extra steps and cost are incurred by foreign manufacturers, that consumers are stuck with the increased cost.

While the reasons for protectionism may sound good on the surface – save the forests, higher wages, less competition to ensure jobs – it isn’t a good thing.  If freedom is defined by the variety of choices, what protectionism does is limit those choices and impose an unofficial tax on consumers.  They end up paying the cost of collusive action between government and special interests.

So, each time your government announces that it is doing you the favor of limiting the imports of this commodity or that, based on “green” concerns, hold on to your wallet.  Whatever the government is protecting you from, you can rest assured that the price of the domestic variety is headed up, since the other product of government intrusion is limiting competition.  Rule of thumb: restricting free trade is rarely a good thing.  And the only entity that can do so is government.  “Green” is just the newest color in an old and costly game – protectionism.

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