All 50 states ban the direct sales of motor vehicles from manufacturers to consumers. The politics of this regrettable policy are clear: auto dealers are powerful political players in every state, while only a few states actually have manufacturing facilities. Banning direct manufacturer sales benefits dealers while hurting manufacturers and consumers.
State governments continue to insert themselves into the contractual relationships between car manufacturers and dealers, typically to the ostensible benefit of the latter. The New Hampshire Senate recently passed a bill regulating the terms and conditions of dealer contracts with manufacturers, prohibiting manufacturers from requiring dealers to alter the appearance of their showrooms, for instance. (Disturbingly, the state director of Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire supports the bill.) The bill is actually unlikely to change any “balance of power” between automakers and auto dealers. Automakers will simply respond by vetting potential dealerships far more closely and perhaps charging higher franchise fees. The onus of this response is likely to fall more on new dealerships than on incumbents. So the real losers from the bill are going to be potential entrants into the car dealer industry and, of course, consumers.
These are not the only examples of “state protectionism,” in which state governments adopt laws meant to reduce competition from out-of-state businesses for the benefit of local incumbents. Some states still prohibit certain out-of-state direct-to-consumer wine shipments. Regulatory barriers can accomplish the same ends. States have widely varying regulations on insurance products, making regulatory compliance a huge barrier for a company trying to market a standard policy in multiple states. For a long time, major life insurance companies lobbied Congress to adopt a national life insurance regulatory regime, pre-empting state laws. They were opposed by local life insurance agents, for whom knowledge of and compliance with distinctive state regulations were a significant source of competitive advantage. In the end, no national legislation materialized, but Congress authorized the formation of an interstate compact, essentially a contract among consenting states that sets up a single insurance regulator. More than 40 states have joined the Interstate Insurance Product Regulation Commission, which regulates life insurance and annuities.
Such state protectionism potentially runs afoul of the so-called “dormant commerce clause” of the U.S. Constitution. The commerce clause allows Congress to regulate trade among the several states. By implication, then, states are presumptively prohibited from burdening interstate trade, unless authorized by Congress. Unfortunately, courts have been reluctant to scrutinize state economic regulations that have an essentially protectionist character, although especially blatant discrimination against out-of-state imports has been overturned. (more…)