Tariffs and the law of unintended consequences

Originally appeared on Sunday Times

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The law of unintended consequences is a theory that dates back to Adam Smith, but was popularised by the sociologist Robert K. Merton. In short, the law explains the reality that when governments intervene to create a set of outcomes, as the theory of cetris paribus (holding other factors constant) cannot be achieved in a market situation - the result is a series of unintended consequences.

Colonial India and Cobras

This law is also known as the ‘Cobra Effect’, dating all the way back to when the British first colonised India. The British were understandably concerned about poisonous snakes in India, Cobras apparently being a source of some worry. The solution they presented was to provide a reward for every Cobra that was killed, creating a clear incentive for locals to capture and kill any Cobras in the vicinity. While this worked well in the short term, the British slowly realised that enterprising individuals were actively breeding Cobras; creating a very profitable business out of collecting bounties. Once this was clear, the British removed the bounty, and now as this was no longer a profitable venture, the breeders released all their Cobras. The final outcome of this was an increase in the general Cobra population, completely the opposite of what the intervention set out to achieve.

While this makes for a good anecdote, the economic realities of the law of unintended consequences are often more dire. Interventions into the market are often well-intended, but have the potential to backfire. A shining example of this is the case of tariffs. Forbes recently published an article which detailed the unintended consequences of a washing machine tariff imposed in the US. This well-meaning tariff was introduced to protect domestic producers in the US, and boost employment in that industry. If one evaluates the effectiveness of the tariff simply on those two criteria, then the tariff has been a resounding success; US washer and dryer industry created around 1,800 new jobs. This could easily be written off as a success story.

The Cobra effect on washing machines

However, the focus here is only on the producer, and the consumer has been removed from the narrative. The first unintended consequence was that as imported machines were now more expensive, domestic manufacturers could safely raise their prices, without fear of losing out on sales. The second unintended consequence was that dryers also became more expensive. As a complementary good to washing machines in the US, manufacturers of dryers saw this as the perfect window in which to raise their prices and increase their profits (clotheslines would save Sri Lanka from this unintended consequence).

Taking all this into account, according to Forbes, this has cost American consumers around USD 1.5 billion. One could argue that this increase in prices and resultant cost to consumers can be justified by the 1,800 jobs that were created. The reality is that each job is equivalent to USD 815,000 in increased consumer costs. This tariff policy effectively protects the local industry at the cost of their own consumers.

Why should Sri Lankans care about washing machine prices in the US?

While we can agree that this does appear to be an unfortunate example of unintended consequences, and that it is pretty clear that domestic consumers got a bad deal here, why should the average Sri Lankan care? After all, we have sunlight soap and clotheslines.

Sri Lankan consumers should care because the same unintended consequences that took place oceans away in the United States is happening here, in our little island nation. Tariffs have long been the favoured tool of successive governments. Tariffs sound really good on paper, and better if said paper is an election manifesto. ‘We will protect our domestic producers’ is a statement that tugs at the heartstrings of too many voters. The fine print ‘at the cost of domestic consumers’ is not something that is publicised, but it should be.

Tariffs have been imposed on goods ranging from household care, personal care and food. The price of items as diverse as school shoes and construction material are affected by this. The entire country complains about how the cost of living is too high, and unreasonably high tariffs are one of the drivers behind this. Unfortunately for us, the imposition of these tariffs create exactly the same series of unintended consequences that American consumers have to face. The price of the weekly shop an average Sri Lankan does whether it is from the delkanda pola, the closest supermarket or the handiye kade is affected by tariffs. A potato, even if it is locally produced is more expensive than it needs to be, because tariffs push the price of imported tomatoes up, allowing domestic producers to raise prices with the consumer losing out.

Tariffs on essential goods in Sri Lanka can range from 45% to 107.6%. There needs to be a serious re-evaluation of the role of tariffs in our economy – the rationale behind imposing them, the consequences of the tariff (which are well understood and cannot be discounted or ignored), and ideally a faster regime for phasing them out.