I’m still very absorbed in studying the Rails codebase, and that has been limiting the amount of time I’ve been able to spend in the past week thinking about blogging. However… TVNZ ran an item a few days ago about a challenge New Zealand’s blueberry industry expects to face next year from imported berries from Chile. The article notes that Chile exports 30,000 tonnes of blueberries a year compared with the total NZ crop of 1500 tonnes, and says that Chilean pickers are paid “much less” than the $20/hour NZ workers earn. The clear implication is that NZ growers don’t think they are going to able to compete on price in future years.

The item ends by quoting North Auckland blueberry grower Robert Auton, who employs visiting workers from the Czech Republic, Hong Kong and Japan to process his crop:

“I think we need to be aware that a lot of smaller industries do exist out there which provide a lot of jobs and we need to protect that”

Auton’s self-interest is understandable, but I find this kind of thinking disturbing. Protectionism is a bad deal for just about everyone:

  • it compels consumers to pay more for their produce,
  • it disadvantages Chilean workers – who in my view are no less worthy of jobs and income than people working in New Zealand. And if they are paid less than those in New Zealand then their need is arguably greater. I seen no moral basis for forcing New Zealand consumers to favor New Zealand workers over those elsewhere.
  • it diverts capital away from industries in which New Zealand would be better equipped to compete effectively and fairly.

Really the only people who would benefit would be NZ growers, and the visiting workers from overseas they pay to work for them (Auton doesn’t say why he thinks the jobs of those foreign workers are more important than those of the foreign workers living in Chile).

The other issue is consistency – if you support protection of NZ industry then you could hardly complain if other countries restrict their imports of New Zealand produce, which could have a tremendously negative impact on the New Zealand economy. Of course NZ had a very long and complex history of industry protection prior to 1984, and I think most people would agree that it created enormous distortions in the economy that were ultimately to the country’s detriment.

Apart from all that, I also have a philosophical bias that I realize not everyone may share – I am generally uncomfortable about the government trying to micro-manage the economy at the cost of freedom people have to buy and sell what they want, from and to who they want, and at prices that they decide themselves are acceptable. I think this kind of freedom is important. But even leaving philosophy aside I think that the potential benefits of protectionism are far too narrow to be considered seriously.

I realize that Auton is just one individual, but it makes me nervous when the media gives time to these kinds of ideas without looking seriously at their real implications. Although it is pure speculation on my part, I can’t help wondering if perhaps they see it as being in their own commercial interest to tap into latent nationalistic impulses that a story like this may stimulate.

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