If you’re anything like me you’ve likely always had a strange sense when buying a car that something wasn’t quite right, a sort of tingly spidey-sense that that you were the punch line to an inside joke. New car dealerships are a fraternity unto themselves. But unlike college fraternities, they work hard to keep newcomers from joining their ranks. The Internet has done much to reveal what the exclusive walls of membership formerly protected. It is not just information that has been freed, but also new modes of doing business. But last week we learned the lengths that these old school fraternities will go to in order to fight change and retain the power structure of their very unique cartel (cartel – get it?). The Georgia Auto Dealers Association filed a complaint last week with the Georgia Department of Revenue claiming that Tesla Motors (a manufacturer of high performance, all electric cars) should be barred from selling any of their vehicles in Georgia because Tesla apparently violated some byzantine state statute that limited manufacturer owned auto outlets from selling more than 150 cars in a year. Tesla sold 173. Yes, I know, what monsters. Off with their heads.
Whether or not Tesla actually sold more than 150 is immaterial. The fact that such a law exists brings into shocking relief the ends to which automobile dealers in the state of Georgia (and indeed many other states, Georgia is sadly not alone) will go to in order to protect their own financial self-interests. Of course protectionist fervor is not how the dealers spin this. They claim they are only trying to protect the public (what selfless servants they are). Without independent dealers, manufacturers would be able to set strict non-negotiable prices, ignore warranties, and otherwise cause the marketplace to collapse into a top-down manufacturer driven oligopoly (according to a bit of NADA propaganda). So clearly in order to protect competition we must limit competition.
What these manufacturers fail to realize is that were these fascist, depression-era laws repealed it would not result in the overnight demise of the independent dealers. Rather it would mean dealers would have to compete with manufacturer outlets on price, service, or quality. Likewise the manufacturers would have to compete in precisely the same manner. At the end of the day the manufacturers don’t really care how their cars are sold, they just want them sold. If independent dealers can offer a manufacturer the ability to sell its cars more efficiently than that manufacturer can sell them (dealerships are a large capital investment after all), then they’re going to choose the cheaper, and thus more profitable route.
In short, the dealers are afraid of competition. And I don’t necessarily blame them. Who wouldn’t love to have one’s ability to earn a living protected by state sanctioned violence? Who wouldn’t love a system that created an artificially high barrier to market entry in order to keep out newcomers with new ideas that might otherwise eat into your 1940’s business model. But cartels, syndicates and state protected oligopolies are not consistent with the principals of liberty; namely that unless I’m using violence or the threat of violence to influence your actions, then you have no right to interfere in my actions irrespective of whether or not you believe it may “harm” you in the future. All competition “harms” another (whether it be economic, social or sport). But the “harm” of competition has a beneficial silver lining. It compels one to work harder, to do better and thus benefit the consumer and themselves in the long run. But if possible “harm” to someone becomes the litmus test for state intervention then I dare say we all belong in jail.