25 March 2013

Subsidies, Bailouts and Markets

I read with relish the report of Leon Louw's recent blast at the never-ending bailouts of South African Airways (SAA). Mr. Louw, Executive Director of South Africa's Free Market Foundation (FMF), demonstrates how these subsidies distort competition, raise costs and prices, divert resources from more efficient and growth-promoting activities, and are especially burdensome to the poor, from whom the bailouts divert public support. The FMF performs a great public service through well-reasoned commentaries of this sort.

Of course, it is not just state companies and agencies that benefit from public subsidies. Direct government support and regulation are viewed by some as necessary for South African industrial development. The consequences of this approach can be similar to the effects of bailouts of state enterprises.

In this regard, Mr. Louw's remarks reminded me of a brilliant commentary by another FMF member, on the impacts of industrial policy in South Africa's motor industry. In a prize-winning letter to Business Day in 2005 Jim Harris explained how the MIDP (Motor Industry Development Program, recently rechristened as APDP) supports a few companies, but punishes consumers and retards the country's long-term economic development. His remarks were controversial and attracted fierce reactions from some fellow FMF members—at least those associated with the motor industry.

Mr. Harris' letter signalled the start of a vigorous public debate about MIDP that, if nothing else, clarified the nature and magnitude of the subsidies enjoyed by the industry. As with the bailouts of SAA, the MIDP and related subsidies protect a few heavily dependent companies at the expense of consumers, jobs and the poor.

I have been unable to find any follow-up on the FMF website to Jim Harris' early foray into South Africa's most important industrial policy. It would be useful for the FMF to complement the comments on bailouts to state enterprises (and on the US bailout of General Motors) with a discussion of the massive and continuing subsidies to firms in the South African motor industry and other selected sectors.

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