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A subsidy is any financial aid provided by a government to a producer or seller of a good or service that is designed to increase the competitiveness of a particular industry firm or entire industry. For example, agricultural products are frequently subsidized by national governments in an effort to increase domestically grown and raised foodstock (among other reasons).
Various governments subsidize different industries, depending on the national priorities and politics at play. Over time, industries as diverse as tobacco, steel, alcohol, agriculture, weapons, and textiles have all been subsidized. There is no inherent limit to the industries that any particular government will subsidize, although nations with different political leanings will tolerate different levels of subsidization.
Illegal subsidies are any subsidy that falls afoul of an international or domestic adjudicating body. A huge variety of subsidies could be considered “illegal” in various contexts. For example, a normally acceptable subsidy could be ruled illegal if it results in a firm “dumping” its products into a neighboring country contrary to anti-dumping legislation. Or, a policy that favors the use of domestic goods in the manufacture of automobiles could offend the WTO’s rule against subsidies that distort international trade.
There are countless forms of subsidies, including, but not limited to:
Their common feature is that they all seek to selectively provide a financial benefit to a producer, consumer, or user of a particular good or service.
There are a host of arguments for the proposition that subsidies should not be provided in some, most, or all circumstances. They include the market-distortion argument (that subsidies impair the efficient operation of the free market) and the corruptibility argument (that political actors are acutely prone to corruption when enacting subsidies).
Subsidies, it is argued, typically impair the efficient operation of the free market. They create artificial or political barriers to the free movement of goods and services in a way that benefits one party over another. Further, they add legal and political complexity to transactions that isn’t otherwise necessary.
There is substantial disagreement over the effect of subsidies on the economy as a whole. It is probably safe to say that subsidies tend to take with one hand while they give with another. Certain subsectors of the economy are helped by certain subsidies, while other sectors of the economy are harmed by still other subsidies.
It is impossible to know with certainty how subsidies as a whole, or any one particular government subsidy, affect the economy. As with much economic research, there are so many variables at play that it is extraordinarily difficult to tease out the effects of one policy or group of policies.
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