Catfish Wars: Why Is U.S. Blocking Capitalist Progress in Vietnam?

Thirty years ago, the United States finally ended its long and costly war with Vietnam. That war pitted two fundamentally different views of the rights of men versus the power of the state against each other.

One side believed men owned themselves and are born with religious, social and political freedom. The other believed the state owns men and was obliged to claim not only the product of a man's labor, but also to dictate his thoughts, his ambition and his beliefs.

The necessity and wisdom of the Vietnam War will continue to be debated for decades (I happen to think it was neither necessary nor wise). What's not debatable is the morality and sustainability of the respective ideologies. Ours was moral and prevailed. Communism wasn't, and failed.

Today, however, when it comes to one market, it's the government of Vietnam that's fighting for the economic freedom of its people. And, sadly, it is the United States that's using the power of the state to deprive the Vietnamese of the right to earn a living. The market is catfish. And the behavior of American politicians in the so-called "catfish wars" has been consistently appalling.

The story begins in the early 1990s, when, taking note of the Asian tiger economies surrounding it, communist Vietnam began tinkering with market-oriented reforms. The experiments proved to be an enormous success. According to the New York Times, loosening the state's grip on private industry enabled Vietnam to become the world's second largest exporter of rice, a force to be reckoned with in coffee markets and an emerging exporter of catfish — all in a very short period of time. In less than a decade, poverty rates in rural Vietnam fell from 70 to 30 percent.

Soon, Vietnamese catfish farmers, most in the Mekong Delta, had won over a fifth of the U.S. frozen catfish market. That didn't sit well in the American South, particularly in Mississippi, where U.S.-grown catfish were increasingly being replaced on restaurant menus and store shelves by their Vietnamese cousins. So U.S. catfish farmers did what unfortunately has become as much of an American tradition as Thanksgiving football, two-party politics and the big box store: They asked politicians to pass laws to protect them from more worthy competitors.

The politicians obliged. Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott was first up, introducing a measure in the U.S. Senate – through an obscure amendment attached to an unrelated appropriations bill, naturally – declaring that henceforth, only the U.S. strain of catfish could henceforth be called "catfish."

Traditionally, "catfish" has referred to any of the thousands of varieties of bottom-dwelling fish with whiskers. After Lott's amendment, catfish originating from Vietnam would be sold as "basa" or "tra," exotic-sounding names that do more to confuse consumers than to educate them. The difference between the two varieties is almost nonexistent.

Such thick-headedness extended to both parties. In its "Harvesting Poverty" series, the Times notes that Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., hinted (with no scientific support whatsoever) that Vietnamese catfish weren't safe for American consumers to eat because they had likely been tainted with Agent Orange, the defoliant the U.S. government sprayed over Vietnam three decades ago.

The irony of using Agent Orange to deny Vietnamese farmers access to U.S markets apparently escaped the congressman.

Next came an anti-dumping case against Vietnamese catfish. "Anti-dumping" suits are anti-competitive tools heavily subsidized U.S. industries use to slap tariffs on imports from countries they claim are too heavily subsidized. But the U.S. Commerce Department couldn't find any evidence that Vietnam was significantly subsidizing its catfish industry. By all indications, Vietnam was simply making better, cheaper catfish.

Nevertheless, the Commerce Department buckled to political pressure, and issued a ridiculous, blanket declaration that Vietnam in general was a "non-market" economy, meaning that all of its industries were, by definition, anti-competitive (there's armloads more irony in the fact that the Commerce Department is charged with making these kinds of decisions — it's little more than a conduit for corporate welfare for U.S. businesses).

The U.S. then slapped draconian tariffs on Vietnamese catfish, jeopardizing the livelihood of the country's fishermen. It was a striking rebuke of a country emerging from the constraints of Marxism, and it came from the United States, a country that not only purports to be the beacon of capitalism, but also sacrificed 60,000 of its own citizens in a war ostensibly fought to rid Vietnam of Marxism.

Despite the tariffs and the handicap of having to market their catfish under a name that sounds nothing like "catfish," Vietnamese catfish farmers persisted -- thrived, even. A Mississippi State poll conducted in 2005 showed that American consumers preferred Vietnamese "basra" to American-farmed catfish by a margin of 3 to 1. A subsequent poll by a marketing firm in Louisiana gave the nod to Vietnamese fish too, though by a slimmer margin.

That couldn't stand. So the politicians again sprang into action, this time with more drastic measures.

In August 2005, regulators in Alabama and Louisiana out-and-out banned Vietnamese catfish from those states. Their reason? Vietnamese catfish posed a "bioterrorism" threat to U.S. consumers — as if Vietnamese Al Qaeda operatives were planning attacks on the use by poisoning the country's catfish exports.

Both states cited an antibiotic Vietnam allows its fishermen to use that hasn't been approved in the U.S., though as William Anderson of the Mises Institute notes, added protection from disease would seem to make the fish safer. Congressmen from those states then pushed the FDA for a nationwide ban on the imports. The FDA, thankfully, refused.

Nativists argue that we should protect the catfish farmers in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana from their Vietnamese competitors for the simple reason that they're Americans, even if it means denying consumers safer, cheaper, better-tasting catfish.

But because of the players involved, the catfish wars aptly illustrate the absurdity of nativist thinking. Thirty years after the last U.S. troops died in Vietnam, that country is inching its way toward capitalism. With petty politics and protectionist trade barriers, it's now the U.S. government that's standing in its way.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute specializing in "nanny state" and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity, and civil liberties. Separately, he maintains the The Agitator weblog. The opinions expressed in his column for are his own and are not to be associated with Cato unless otherwise indicated.

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