With a name like Reynolds, I naturally expect more French jokes in my email than does my Cato Institute colleague Veronique de Rugy. For the record, though, Grandmother Rosine Chable was French. And Reynolds is usually Irish. That certainly doesn't keep me from enjoying a good French or Irish joke, but I sometimes wonder if the crusade to boycott French wine is just a bad joke. There would be winners and losers from such a boycott, but the losers would not include French consumers or the French government. To understand why that is so is an interesting illustration of why emotion is no substitute for economics.
About 40 percent of Americans tell pollsters they favor boycotting French products, and that impulse is invariably translated into wine and cheese. Even as Americans fly around in an Airbus, they can't seem to imagine the fifth largest industrial economy producing anything but wine and cheese. What France mainly produces is bloated government, but we have more than enough of that and certainly don't want to import more. Wine accounts for less than 3 percent of our imports from France, the rest being mostly industrial products, chemicals and the like.
It is easy to see the popular appeal of boycotting French wine. It sounds like doing something while doing next to nothing. After all, how much personal sacrifice is involved in substituting New Zealand sauvignon blanc for French Sancerre? But the actual economic effects of such a boycott -- who wins and who loses -- would be entirely different than its proponents assume, even aside from retaliation (e.g., Europeans have been boycotting the U.S. stock market lately).
U.S. wine stores have recently been promoting the newly arrived 2000 vintage Bordeaux. Suppose 40 percent of American wine consumers refused to buy that Bordeaux -- what would happen next? The boycott obviously can't reduce the supply, because like all good red wine, it was produced a few years ago. I don't see why anyone would single-out French winemakers for financial punishment, but the boycott may not be able to accomplish even that dubious objective. The reason should be obvious: Any French wine you see in U.S. stores has already been bought and paid for by U.S. distributors and retailers. The French have our money, and we have their wine. Who is actually being threatened with a boycott, at least for the foreseeable future, are U.S. wine merchants.