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The Comeback of Industrial Policy: Adam Smith, Bidenomics and the global system

First published: 13th July 2023

(A summary of comments made at a private dinner debate, 10th July 2023)

In case you didn’t know, 2023 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Adam Smith, founding father of economic thinking. Now you might wonder what Smith has to do with global economic issues almost two and a half centuries after he published his famous Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, but there is a lot in Smith’s writing that frames and resonates with   contemporary economic and policy issues. 

I thought it interesting to refer to Adam Smith, because his work, channelled by protagonists of both the left and the right over time, is all about the intersect between the market, the state and civil society, and how people should organise and behave, and what role the state should play, so as to realise better well being, or welfare, for citizens. 

The new interventionism or industrial strategies that are planting roots – let’s refer to all this as  Bidenomics – is highly controversial. Some argue angrily that it is blatantly protectionist and that there is no reason to believe that 21st century industrial policy will be any more successful or effective than it was when it was last wheeled out 40-50 years ago. And which, to be fair was abandoned in the 1980s as the Reagan-Thatcher era spawned a neoliberal order in which it has no place. Current sceptics live by variants of the motto made popular by Edmund Burke, George  Santayana and Winston Churchill to the effect the those who forget or cannot remember or learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

I am going to explain why despite its being protectionist and having a poor historical pedigree from that particular time, it is both necessary and justified in the particular circumstances of our time. Not the time of our youth, or our parents’ or grandparents’ time, but today. These circumstances did not exist then, and however cute the parallels might be in drawing historical parallels, there is so much that is different today that it cannot be deduced that things that didn’t work 40 years ago must be equally dismal today.  As L.P Hartley wrote in his novel The Go-Between, ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. 

I agree with sceptics that new industrial policies smack of a new nationalism and undermine the principles of comp advantage, efficiency, market discipline and gains from trade which are among the crown jewels of economic thinking, championed by Smith.

However, these are not the only crown jewels in economics, and Smith was certainly aware that the ‘invisible hand’ and the pursuit of self-interest had to be tempered to avoid bad behaviour and outcomes, monopolies, and wealth concentration. And no one can say with a straight face that the holy grail of efficiency and market discipline, by which we have lived since the 1980s, hasn’t already cost us dear in terms of economic and financial crises,  dangerous populism, egregious corporate behaviour, rising inequality, and JK Galbraith’s cocktail of private affluence and public squalor. 

I also agree, of course, that trade and industrial  policy, which are two sides of same coin, are important, but trade is not the only thing that’s important, and it is certainly not more important than other economic and social objectives or than advancing the causes of national security and the need to accelerate climate change mitigation, which occupy the space in which  Bidenomics and its imitators want to set up camp. This is not the industrial policy from yesteryear that may have been motivated by GDP growth aspirations, or national pride or the creation of national champions. 

To repeat, the intersect between the market, the state and civil society, which was central to Smith’s thinking at the end of the 18th century, is pivotal to our interests today, especially today. 

Curiously, we have lapsed into rethinking this intersect roughly every 40 years:  we did it in the 1900s after Globalisation 1.0, we certainly did it in the1940s and 50s;  we did it again in the 1980s and 90s; and now we are doing it again. Doubtless our children will do it again in time. 

But we are doing this today after being buffeted over the last 15 years by a succession of transformational shocks that have rattled our institutions, resilience and well-being. Smith would be concerned, for sure. 

Think about

–   Globalisation, which produced asymmetric benefits, with many experiencing only inequality, insecurity, and the withering of the industrial base

  • The financial crisis which shattered the middle class and its faith in elite
  • The rise of China, which  threatens the system of beliefs and values we hold dear and according to which we prefer to be governed
  • the pandemic, which exposed the weakness of supply chains and poor resilience 
  • the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which exposed dependency relations, including on China, that are unacceptable now
  • And climate change, which as always an existential threat, but is now increasingly urgent

Transformational shocks call for transformational responses 

We are faced with challenges that mean that the status quo is unacceptable, and that we have to support key sectors, strengthen resilience and dependability, and nurture greater stability and inclusiveness. In this context, the new industrial policy focus isn’t a trip down memory lane. 

Rather, it acknowledges 

  • that economic insecurity and inequality are secular problems 
  • that climate change and geopolitical competition are systemic and existential problems
  • and that market failure in terms of adequate and timely solutions is an important reason for the state to intervene to try and bolster it   

With regard to climate change, for example, the world doesn’t have enough ability to produce batteries, solar farms, wind turbines, heat pumps and other equipment in adequate value to be consistent with 1.5 or 2C of climate change mitigation without government action. We need, therefore, government to create new ‘externalities’, which private firms can then internalise into their businesses. 

It is inevitable that the current batch of initiatives may fall short or have been mis-specified in some respects and that they will have to be revised or supplemented in good time.  But we should under no illusions to what this shift in action and mindset means. It pretends:

– a change in  emphasis away from finance, consumerism and globalism – and asymmetric benefits…. to production, supply, and localism/communities

  • a  sharper focus on better quality jobs, better wages, and better distribution throughout regions and segments of the labour force
  • an attempt to tilt market prices to make certain industries (semiconductors, renewables) more profitable and hence larger than they otherwise would be 
  • and efforts to exploit complementarity between public and private  goods and services  eg electric vehicles need adequate charging stations, semiconductor manufacturing requires adequate throughput of STEM qualified workers, electrification needs power grids,  transportation and broadband need physical and digital infrastructure 

Finally, a few words on  Bidenomcs and trade, and on China

Bidenomics has been charged as being protectionist, which of course, in a limited way, it is. But protectionism is also a bit like beauty – eye of beholder. 

To trade policy specialists and legal experts, trade barriers (including a broad range of non tariff barriers and subsidies) are all protectionist

In a broader economic context though, the bigger issue is whether they are so much worse than modern trade rules that go into the long grass of regulation, health and safety, investment, finance and banking, labour markets, data management, technology standards, the environment and so on. These rules are always deemed to be liberalising, but there is also a deeper nuance. They are often shaped by the rent-seeking  and self interest of export nations with balance of payments surpluses, banks, Pharma companies and multinational corporations. Yet these are only ever scrutinised meekly, if at all; normally it is those with import interests or that put barriers to import competition that are cast as villains. That is both unfair  and misguided. 

Even more importantly, the impact of Bidenomics and its possible copycats on trade is likely to be swamped by the far greater effects of  macroeconomic developments and policies on trade flows. You only have to see the negligible or even zero impact of Trump’s tariffs to realise that trade is much bigger than some of the measures countries adopt that interfere with it. 

While Trump’s policies were self-defeating and largely peripheral, the realisation that China was a global commercial problem was not wrong. China’s industrial policies,  including subsidies, direct grants and lending, technology transfer and procurement policies and so on have been tolerated , in fairness, for a long time. yet the idiosyncrasies of trade and commerce in the face of China’s policies eventually couldn’t be tolerated any more and as political circumstances changed, that tolerance snapped.

China’s behaviour almost certainly sharpened the US pivot to compete more aggressively in technology and climate change-related production.

For US, the choice was to match some aspects of Chinese policy in renewables and chip making – mostly via tax breaks for any firm that from any country that manufactures in US or has a FTA with the US –  for example, or cede those sectors to China. The truth is that market was never going to finance the US effort to catch up on its own in the face of unconstrained Chinese subsidies.

For US also, the fundamental question is to strengthen its own technology resilience and reduce dependency on China, and indeed on Taiwan, and to try to change the technology supply chain geography by the 2030s, though including of course its allies. 

Is the new industrial policy interventionism worth while? Everyone will have to judge for themselves. 

Criticising the new industrial thinking for where it might fall down is fair game, but not if you don’t also pose the counterfactual, which is how we are already in a bad place and will hardly improve in the absence of a fresh approach.

Valid criticism may be that the measures are too few, that they need to be better aligned with allies, that they may become hostage to corporate lobbying, or that they are inadequate to generate good jobs and more robust communities.

But we should be open minded and indeed welcoming of new attempts to address some of the deep seated economic and social ills of our society in the 2020s…even at the cost of a few neoliberal shibboleths. Smith might not have been delirious about all this, but he would most likely have understood, and in the interest of the well being of society, had some supportive things to say.