Friday, November 21, 2014

Will Georgia Reject Liberty for Tesla (and Consumers)?

Protecting Economic Liberty


The nation's automobile dealers are at it again, attempting to thwart basic economic freedoms in a manner that protects themselves, and their manufacturers, from fair competition.  The battleground this time is Georgia, where the state's automobile dealers' association has filed a petition seeking to bar Tesla from selling automobiles in the Peach State to willing purchasers from outlets owned by Tesla.  The petition claims that Tesla, which holds an automobile dealership license in Georgia, has violated the state's Automotive Franchising Law by selling automobiles to willing consumers from a single Tesla-owned retail store.  That law makes it unlawful for any automobile manufacturer to:

"own, operate, or control, directly or indirectly, more than a 45 percent interest in a dealer or dealership in this state[.]"

Just last week, Tesla filed a motion to dismiss the dealers' anti-liberty complaint. (See here, for a report about Tesla's filing).  Hopefully the Georgia courts will look north for guidance on how to rule on Tesla's motion.  Earlier this fall, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts struck a blow for economic liberty and the welfare of consumers, by rejected a similar petition by automobile dealers demanding coercive economic protection.  See Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers' Association et al. v. Tesla Motors, MA, Inc. and Tesla Motors, Inc.   As in Georgia, the plaintiffs, an association of automobile dealers and an individual dealer, claimed that Tesla's direct sales to willing consumers violated Massachusetts' own statute governing automotive franchising, General Law Chapter 93B, entitled: "Regulation of Business Practices Between Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, Distributors and Dealers."

Section 3 of chapter 93B prohibits what it calls "Unfair Methods of Competition and Unfair or Deceptive Acts of Practices."  Section 4 in turn defines various practices that violate Section 3. Section 4(c)(10) provides that it shall be a violation of Section 3 for:

"a manufacturer, distributor or franchiser representative to . . . own or operate, either directly or indirectly through any subsidiary, parent company or firm, a motor vehicle dealership located in the commonwealth of the same line [or]  make as any of the vehicles manufactured, assembled or distributed by the manufacturer or distributor.”

Tesla obviously manufactures automobiles, and it distributes such vehicles in Massachusetts via Tesla Motors of Massachusetts, a wholly-owned subsidiary.  Nonetheless, the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the legislature did not mean to protect the state's dealers from competition by unrelated manufacturers.  Instead, the court said: "93B is aimed primarily at protecting motor vehicle dealers from injury caused by the unfair business practices of manufacturers and distributors with which they are associated, generally in a franchise relationship."  In other words, if a manufacturer, say Ford, relies on independent dealers to distribute its vehicles, it may not then open its own dealerships that compete with such dealers.  On the other hand, a manufacturer such as Tesla that only engages in self-distribution is perfectly free to do so, even if the resulting sales reduce the profits of established manufacturers and their dealers.  As the court put things later in the opinion:

Chapter 93B "was intended and understood only to prohibit manufacturer-owned dealerships when, unlike Tesla, the manufacturer already had an affiliated dealer or dealers in Massachusetts."

While the court couched its ultimate holding as resting upon the plaintiff's lack of standing, the opinion's rationale also suggests that Tesla's self-distribution does not violate the statute in the first place.  If so, then a party that did have standing to challenge a purported violation would nonetheless lose any challenge to Tesla's practice on the merits.

Of course, the ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court is not binding on Georgia courts interpreting their own statutes.  Moreover, the operative language of the Georgia statute is somewhat different from that of the Massachusetts statute.  Still, both statutes govern the franchising relationship between manufacturers and existing independent dealers.  Moreover, both statutes ban numerous practices that manufacturers might employ to the detriment of such independent dealers.  Read as a whole, then, neither statute seems designed to govern manufacturers that, like Tesla, have no independent dealers whatsoever.  Perhaps the Georgia courts will recognize this apparent function of the statute and reiterate the Massachusetts approach.  Failure to do so would place red-state Georgia in the embarrassing position of rejecting a form of economic liberty recognized in blue-state Massachusetts, an a potentially ironic twist given credible rankings finding that Massachusetts otherwise lags far behind Georgia when it comes to protecting basic economic freedoms.

Even if courts in both states embrace a pro-liberty position, the respective state legislatures are still perfectly free to amend their statutes so as to abridge basic economic liberty by banning self-distribution by firms like Tesla.  Indeed, less than a year ago, and as reported here, a member of the Massachusetts legislature introduced a bill intended to "clarify" Chapter 93B. The bill included the following language that would have banned Tesla's strategy of self-distribution.

"The blanket prohibition on manufacturer ownership applies notwithstanding whether a manufacturer has used independently owned or operated dealerships to distribute its vehicles."

Hopefully both legislatures will resist any temptation to alter their statutes in this way.  As previously explained on this blog, free societies respect the rights of entrepreneurs to distribute products as they see fit, so long as the method chosen does not impose inefficient harms on third parties.    Like some other manufacturers, Tesla has chosen to rely upon complete vertical integration, a practice that can reduce the transaction costs that sometimes result from reliance upon independent dealers. While such dealers can provide valuable services, some consumers choose to forgo such services and purchase directly from the manufacturer.  Proponents of legislation imposing blanket bans on such vertical integration by automobile manufacturers have offered no plausible account of how integration by modestly-sized firms such as Tesla can produce economic harm. (See here, discussing and refuting arguments in favor of such a ban.)  Thus, some commentators have properly concluded that statutes banning Tesla's self-distribution "reduce competition in [the state's] automobile market for the benefit of its auto dealers and to the detriment of its consumers."  As a result, they conclude, such statutes amount to "protectionism for auto dealers, pure and simple." Such protectionism, of course, also raises barriers to entry for firms such as Telsa, who apparently believe that self-distribution is less costly than reliance upon independent dealers.  A state anxious to maximize the liberty and welfare of its citizens will reject such coercive protectionism.