Anti-Dumping Laws: In Whose Interest?

It’s hard to top deposing a Prime Minister. But having the management of Rio Tinto replaced by monkeys (as Australian Worker’s Union boss Paul Howes suggested last week) would be pretty impressive too.

The AWU celebrated its 125th anniversary with bluster and assertiveness. It’s been swinging wildly at mining companies, foreign imports, and ministers in the Government it installed.

None of it shows the AWU in a particularly good light. Take for instance the union’s campaign to strengthen the Government’s anti-dumping laws.

“Dumping” occurs when a foreign firm exports into Australia products and sells them for a price lower than in their home market. The idea, in theory, is to put Australian firms out of business, and then jack up prices. Our anti-dumping laws impose selective tariffs on goods to compensate. Lots of countries have similar laws.

So it may seem the union’s “Don’t Dump on Australia” is of minor importance. But the campaign against dumping exposes a simple truth: the union movement is a special interest, acting on behalf of a few favoured sectors of the economy.

Because from the very beginning, anti-dumping laws had almost nothing to do with the theory of dumping.

The first anti-dumping law was enacted in Canada in 1904. New Zealand imposed one in 1905, and Australia in 1906. The US joined the anti-dumping club 1916; South Africa and Great Britain five years after that.

But it was only in 1923 the economic theory of dangers of dumping was formulated, by the economist Jacob Viner in his book Dumping: A Problem in International Trade.

So what inspired the earlier anti-dumping laws? Politics, not economics. The Canadian government first imposed anti-dumping laws to curry favour with domestic steelmakers feeling threatened by cheap US imports.

The rest of the world followed suit. For Australia, anti-dumping legislation was a simple component of “protection all round”.

In other words, anti-dumping is not a measure to defend the integrity of free trade (as Howes claimed last week, saying foreign competitors were “cheating”) but a measure to undermine it.

Anti-dumping laws are protectionism, pure and simple.

As the failures of state socialism have become clearly manifest in the last few decades, Viner’s theory of dumping has been abandoned, along with the arguments for infant industry protection, import quotas, general tariffs, and trade subsidies.

After all, the dumping thesis relies on the possibility of a foreign producer, having eliminated all its competitors, raising prices. But it’s hard to find in the literature an example of a firm ever doing so. It’s not a very good strategy: it’s expensive, and its reward is uncertain. Even if a firm managed to eliminate all its competitors, the moment it raised prices new competitors would flood back into the market.

And if imported goods are only cheap because they’re subsidised by foreign governments, that’s a straight transfer of wealth from overseas taxpayers to Australian consumers.

A Productivity Commission inquiry last year found while anti-dumping measures benefited a few companies, those benefits came at the expense of everybody else’s economic well-being.

It did, admittedly, find the overall cost to the economy was likely to be very small. So the commission recommended keeping the laws for a very specific reason – to placate the fears of some firms (and the union movement) about tariff reform.

That is, for politics, not for good policy.

You could dismiss the Productivity Commission as unforgivably neo-liberal.

But even the Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz – hardly a doctrinaire free-marketeer – describes much anti-dumping laws nothing more than “creative new measures to block imports” which make “little economic sense”. The first world, Stiglitz argues, uses anti-dumping legislation to shield itself from third world competition.

The AWU is welcome to stand up for what it perceives to be in the interests of its members. That’s its job – to seek special privileges for those who pay the annual fee.

But the union cannot claim the policies it pursues are in the general interest of the Australian economy. (And, as Stiglitz might add, in the interest of third world workers.) The union’s ferocious advocacy of anti-dumping laws is a small but indicative reminder of this.

If the AWU was concerned with all Australians they would campaign to eliminate anti-dumping laws. Lower prices and a more competitive economy benefit unionists and non-unionists alike.

Unfortunately the Federal Coalition has joined the AWU on its anti-dumping crusade: Tony Abbott has also called for an examination of the anti-dumping regime to protect jobs.

The review of 2010 federal election by Steve Bracks, John Faulkner and Bob Carr has reaffirmed the relationship between an antagonistic union movement and a deferential Labor Party.

Given the union movement’s willingness to forego the national interest while protecting its client industries, this should not be welcomed.