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Industrial Policy Returns from the Grave

One of the worst responses by officials to the financial crisis and deep recession has been to revive “industrial policy.” Governments' use of subsidies, mandates, regulation, and capital investment to pick industrial winners and losers failed in the 1970's and 1980's, and it is just as bad an idea today.

PALO ALTO – One of the worst responses by officials to the financial crisis and deep recession has been to revive “industrial policy.” Once again, governments are using subsidies, mandates, regulation, and capital investment to pick industrial winners and losers, rather than using a broad, even-handed approach.

The new round of industrial policy is occurring in advanced economies such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which long resisted its worst excesses, France, which long promoted national “champions”, and emerging economies such as Brazil and China. For example, French President Nicholas Sarkozy plans to borrow 52 billion euros to promote what his government guesses or hopes will be “growth industries.” Even central banks, especially the US Federal Reserve, have been supporting particular firms and types of assets because of the financial crisis. 

Industrial policy is appealing to politicians who can favor key constituencies while claiming to be helping the economy as a whole. But it usually does far more harm than good. 

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