Against the Proposed Toyota Ban
As the latest egregious example of economic illiteracy to come out of Washington, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) has proposed banning Japanese-made cars. This is a knee-jerk reaction that would be ineffectual at making American drivers safer, and would have many unintended negative consequences.
First, the ban wouldn’t even solve the problem, because all of the Toyotas that were recalled in January for malfunctioning gas pedals weren’t manufactured in Japan. They were manufactured in the United States:
As for banning Japanese-made vehicles: All 2.4 million Toyotas recalled Jan. 21 due to sticky gas pedals, and most of the 5.6 million vehicles recalled because floor mats might jam pedals, were assembled in the USA.
Would this ban have anything to do with the fact that the U.S. government has a large financial stake in GM, a major Toyota competitor?
Banning Toyotas would have many negative consequences. For example, the men and women who work in Toyota dealerships and Toyota manufacturing plants would have to join the ranks of the unemployed. This would have a noticeably negative effect in Missouri, which has a high-enough unemployment rate already — 9.6 percent as of December.
Banning foreign imports like Toyota would hurt consumers because it would limit their choice of cars. When free trade is restricted, a people can only consume what their country is able to produce. In an adapted excerpt from their book Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, Milton and Rose Friedman elucidated what this means to consumers:
We cannot eat, wear, or enjoy the goods we send abroad. We eat bananas from Central America, wear Italian shoes, drive German automobiles, and enjoy programs we see on our Japanese TV sets. Our gain from foreign trade is what we import. Exports are the price we pay to get imports. As Adam Smith saw so clearly, the citizens of a nation benefit from getting as large a volume of imports as possible in return for its exports or, equivalently, from exporting as little as possible to pay for its imports.
The ban would also increase consumer prices on all cars by decreasing the total supply. Domestic car producers do not have the capacity to make up for the shortfall in the short run, which would aggravate this effect. In the aforementioned excerpt, Milton and Rose Friedman explained that “‘Protection’ really means exploiting the consumer” because she has to pay more for goods.
The ban would also decrease the quality of vehicles that are available to American consumers, which is the very problem that this policy is intended to alleviate. When a country attempts to protect certain industries, it removes their incentive to innovate in order to compete in the global market. By banning foreign imports such as Toyota, the United States would do the American car industry and American consumers no favors. GM and Ford have difficulty competing with foreign firms like Toyota and Honda in the status quo world economy because they have “benefited” from American protectionist policies on cars for so long. Furthermore, bans on foreign imports become even more disadvantageous in the future if/when the trade restriction is lifted, because domestic car companies would have lower-tech, lower-quality products than their foreign competitors.
Government intervention in international markets hurts business and discourages economic growth. When a country slaps protective measures on its trade policy, it is probable that other nations will retaliate in kind, leading to increased consumer prices. Impeding free trade is very dangerous policy when international economies are so intertwined. We only have to look to the recent past for evidence of this. Last September, Obama placed a 35-percent tariff on tire imports from China. This was effectively a tax on Americans who drive cars, who were predicted to experience a 20- to 30-percent increase in the cost of tires as a result of the policy. China responded the following Sunday in retaliation by placing its own tariffs on imports of American poultry and automobiles.
I have an alternative suggestion: Instead of banning foreign imports, each U.S. senator should complete a refresher course on macroeconomics before assuming office. Based on Sen. Johanns’ proposal, I see no evidence this the former secretary of agriculture ever took one in the first place.