BY HENRY HAZLITT
Economics In One Lesson, Chapter 14
The lobbies of Congress are crowded with representatives of the X industry. The X industry is sick. The X industry is dying. It must be saved. It can be saved only by a tariff, by higher prices, or by a subsidy. If it is allowed to die, workers will be thrown on the streets. Their landlords, grocers, butchers, clothing stores and local motion picture theaters will lose business, and depression will spread in ever-widening circles. But if the X industry, by prompt action of Congress, is saved—ah then! it will buy equipment from other industries; more men will be employed; they will give more business to the butchers, bakers and neon-light makers, and then it is prosperity that will spread in ever-widening circles.
It is obvious that this is merely a generalized form of the case we have just been considering. There the X industry was agriculture. But there are an endless number of X industries. Two of the most notable examples in recent years have been the coal and silver industries. To “save silver” Congress did immense harm. One of the arguments for the rescue plan was that it would help “the East.” One of its actual results was to cause deflation in China, which had been on a silver basis, and to force China off that basis. The United States Treasury was compelled to acquire, at ridiculous prices far above the market level, hoards of unnecessary silver, and to store it in vaults. The essential political aims of the “silver Senators” could have been as well achieved, at a fraction of the harm and cost, by the payment of a frank subsidy to the mine owners or to their workers; but Congress and the country would never have approved a naked steal of this sort unaccompanied by the ideological flimflam regarding “silver’s essential role in the national currency.”
To save the coal industry Congress passed the Guffey Act, under which the owners of coal mines were not only permitted, but compelled, to conspire together not to sell below certain minimum prices fixed by the government. Though Congress had started out to fix “the” price of coal, the government soon found itself (because of different sizes, thousands of mines, and shipments to thousands of different destinations by rail, truck, ship and barge) fixing 350,000 separate prices for coal! One effect of this attempt to keep coal prices above the competitive market level was to accelerate the tendency toward the substitution by consumers of other sources of power or heat—such as oil, natural gas and hydro-electric energy.
But our aim here is not to trace all the results that followed historically from efforts to save particular industries, but to trace a few of the chief results that must necessarily follow from efforts to save an industry.
It may be argued that a given industry must be created or preserved for military reasons. It may be argued that a given industry is being ruined by taxes or wage rates disproportionate to those of other industries; or that, if a public utility, it is being forced to operate at rates or charges to the public that do not permit an adequate profit margin. Such arguments may or may not be justified in a particular case. We are not concerned with them here. We are concerned only with a single argument for saving the X industry—that if it is allowed to shrink in size or perish through the forces of free competition (always, by spokesmen for the industry, designated in such cases as a laissez-faire, anarchic, cutthroat, dog-eat-dog, law-of-the-jungle competition) it will pull down the general economy with it, and that if it is artificially kept alive it will help everybody else.
What we are talking about here is nothing else but a generalized case of the argument put forward for “parity” prices for farm products or for tariff protection for any number of X industries. The argument against artificially higher prices applies, of course, not only to farm products but to any other product, just as the reasons we have found for opposing tariff protection for one industry apply to any other.
But there are always any number of schemes for saving X industries. There are two main types of such proposals in addition to those we have already considered, and we shall take a brief glance at them. One is to contend that the X industry is already “overcrowded,” and to try to prevent other firms or workers from getting into it. The other is to argue that the X industry needs to be supported by a direct subsidy from the government.
Now if the X industry is really overcrowded as compared with other industries it will not need any coercive legislation to keep out new capital or new workers. New capital does not rush into industries that are obviously dying. Investors do not eagerly seek the industries that present the highest risks of loss combined with the lowest returns. Nor do workers, when they have any better alternative, go into industries where the wages are lowest and the prospects for steady employment least promising.
If new capital and new labor are forcibly kept out of the X industry, however, either by monopolies, cartels, union policy or legislation, it deprives this capital and labor of liberty of choice. It forces investors to place their money where the returns seem less promising to them than in the X industry. It forces workers into industries with even lower wages and prospects than they could find in the allegedly sick X industry. It means, in short, that both capital and labor are less efficiently employed than they would be if they were permitted to make their own free choices. It means, therefore, a lowering of production which must reflect itself in a lower average living standard.
That lower living standard will be brought about either by lower average money wages than would otherwise prevail or by higher average living costs, or by a combination of both. (The exact result would depend upon the accompanying monetary policy.) By these restrictive policies wages and capital returns might indeed be kept higher than otherwise within the X industry itself; but wages and capital returns in other industries would be forced down lower than otherwise. The X industry would benefit only at the expense of the A, B and C industries.
Similar results would follow any attempt to save the X industry by a direct subsidy out of the public till. This would be nothing more than a transfer of wealth or income to the X industry. The taxpayers would lose precisely as much as the people in the X industry gained. The great advantage of a subsidy, indeed, from the standpoint of the public, is that it makes this fact so clear. There is far less opportunity for the intellectual obfuscation that accompanies arguments for tariffs, minimum-price fixing or monopolistic exclusion.
It is obvious in the case of a subsidy that the taxpayers must lose precisely as much as the X industry gains. It should be equally clear that, as a consequence, other industries must lose what the X industry gains. They must pay part of the taxes that are used to support the X industry. And consumers, because they are taxed to support the X industry, will have that much less income left with which to buy other things. The result must be that other industries on the average must be smaller than otherwise in order that the X industry may be larger.
But the result of this subsidy is not merely that there has been a transfer of wealth or income, or that other industries have shrunk in the aggregate as much as the X industry has expanded. The result is also (and this is where the net loss comes in to the nation considered as a unit) that capital and labor are driven out of industries in which they are more efficiently employed to be diverted to an industry in which they are less efficiently employed. Less wealth is created. The average standard of living is lowered compared with what it would have been.
These results are virtually inherent, in fact, in the very arguments put forward to subsidize the X industry. The X industry is shrinking or dying by the contention of its friends. Why, it may be asked, should it be kept alive by artificial respiration? The idea that an expanding economy implies that all industries must be simultaneously expanding is a profound error. In order that new industries may grow fast enough it is necessary that some old industries should be allowed to shrink or die. They must do this in order to release the necessary capital and labor for the new industries. If we had tried to keep the horse-and-buggy trade artificially alive we should have slowed down the growth of the automobile industry and all the trades dependent on it. We should have lowered the production of wealth and retarded economic and scientific progress.
We do the same thing, however, when we try to prevent any industry from dying in order to protect the labor already trained or the capital already invested in it. Paradoxical as it may seem to some, it is just as necessary to the health of a dynamic economy that dying industries be allowed to die as that growing industries be allowed to grow. The first process is essential to the second. It is as foolish to try to preserve obsolescent industries as to try to preserve obsolescent methods of production: this is often, in fact, merely two ways of describing the same thing. Improved methods of production must constantly supplant obsolete methods, if both old needs and new wants are to be filled by better commodities and better means.
 Testimony of Dan H. Wheeler, director of the Bituminous Coal Division. Hearings on extension of the Bituminous Coal Act of 1937.
Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.