Monday, April 13, 2015

Did Korea's Economic Development Require State Protection?

A common argument that is often brought up to argue against free market capitalism is Korea's economic development. Many argue that despite the fact that President Park Chung-hee was a dictator, one thing that people cannot argue against is the economic development that Korea enjoyed under his 17-year-long rule.

Specifically, what those people are usually referring to is the series of protections, quotas, tariffs, and subsidies that President Park had given to what were then nascent chaebol companies.

One such defender of that point of view is Professor Ha-joon Chang, an economics professor at the University of Cambridge, and the author of such books as Bad Samaritans, Kicking Away The Ladder, and 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism.

Professor Ha-joon Chang
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Much can be said about his books, and I plan to do so in the future. For now, however, I will focus only on his defense of the infant industry argument, which is an idea that argues that emerging businesses and industries require government protection – in the form of tariffs, subsidies, and quotas – from their more entrenched competitors, particularly foreign competitors.

In that article that I linked earlier from The Independent, Professor Chang compares nascent industries to his six-year-old child. If this weren't a cringe-worthy moment of stupidity and/or academic dishonesty, I don't know what is.

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Moving on, in Bad Samaritans, Professor Chang makes the argument that Korea's economy did not develop because of neo-liberal economic policies, but rather due to heavy government involvement in the economy. There is no question that that is true.

There is also no question that Korea's rapid economic growth was nothing short of miraculous. There is a reason that it is often referred to as the Miracle on the Han River. But is that proof that protectionism was what allowed Korea's economy to develop so quickly? Well, that's quite hard to confirm considering the fact that Singapore and Hong Kong, which practised freer trade policies, went through much quicker and greater economic development.

“But they are city-states; they cannot be compared to a country that is so much bigger like Korea,” I often hear people say.

Fine, fair enough. Then one has to wonder about China and India. Both countries are much bigger than Korea and their economies grew much more quickly after they began to liberalize their respective economies (see here and here).

Of course, this is certainly not to say that government controls and economic programs are non-existent in Hong Kong or Singapore or China or India. They are not free market economies. But they have shown that freer markets do lead to greater growth.

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Another point that Professor Chang does not mention is that subsidization and other forms of government protections do not guarantee economic survival or development in any way, stretch, or form.

Yes, Korea is an example of an economic success story. However, we also have to look at other examples where protecting infant industries were not successful. For example, African cotton farmers want their governments to end the subsidies programs for their respective national industries so that they can finally compete in the international market; and which African country's economic development could ever compare with Korea's economic growth?

The problems of protecting infant industries are not limited to African countries. In the United States, despite the government's efforts to prop up Solyndra, a company that specialized in manufacturing solar cells, with up to US$535 million of taxpayers' money, the company still declared bankruptcy.

Similar examples can be found in Korea, too. Samsung was certainly one of the chaebol conglomerates that the Korean government helped to protect and nurture. However, Samsung is not the only business that got so much love from the government. Another industry that has gotten a lot of love from the Korean government is the rice industry. So why has Samsung become an internationally well-known name but there isn't a single Korean food-producing company that is as well-known outside of Korea?

In other words, no amount of subsidies or trade protections ever seems to be able to prevent what was always doomed to fail from failing.

So what does Korea owe its economic success to? That is a difficult question to answer; much more difficult than Professor Chang would like for his readers to believe. It's certainly not free market economics. As Professor Chang has shown, the Korean government has been heavily involved in Korea's economy. But as I have shown, freer markets like Hong Kong and Singapore have grown more quickly than Korea and subsidies do not guarantee success.

Though that specific question may be harder to answer, what is much easier to answer is that Korea's economy did not develop because of the government's protections, subsidies, and overall involvement in the economy, but rather in spite of them.

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