Yet the debate over industrial policy remains simplistic. Advocates frequently point to countries that support industrial policy—such as China or France—and observe that these countries are rich or growing. Industrial Policy is presumed to be the cause of their growth, and it is pronounced a success.
There are many problems with this analysis. As William Easterly notes, it is important to get the comparison right. France might be doing even better if its firms had less state interference. A better analysis would examine all countries that try industrial policy—including the failures—and examine their relative success.
There are also a variety of non-GDP related costs associated with Industrial Policy that are difficult to nail down. To see this clearly: take the contrasting story of cell phones in India and China.
In India, the telecommunication sector shows the success of privatization. As long as a state-run firm handled phones, few people had landline access. Auctions of telecom licenses led to this huge burst of investment and innovation. The so-called “Indian Model,” that resulted delivered the world’s lowest cell phone prices and the mass adoption of cell phone services.
By contrast, China’s telecom policy has been based on the idea of getting state control over the commanding heights of telecommunications. Companies like China Mobile dominate cell phone services, while companies like Huawei are growing giants in telecom hardware. Judged from a pure economic standpoint, this type of state control is compatible with high rates of economic growth. These state-sponsored companies are also highly profitable.
But state control comes at a cost. China has higher cell phone rates, and texting is more popular partially as a result. International corporate acquisitions are also affected. India’s Bharti—a top private mobile operator—has purchased Zain, another private African mobile operator. Bharti plans on exporting its low-cost outsourcing model there, potentially revolutionizing African telecoms. State strategic interests, on the other hand, motivate China’s acquisitions. India’s competitive environment may be better geared towards generating internationally competitive firms.
The hidden costs of industrial policy may not show up on a simple economic ledger. But they are real nonetheless. If the past few years have shown private industry at its worst—think AIG or BP—it’s not clear that injecting more government control would produce better results.