WASHINGTON — A top executive for Tesla Motors sparred with backers of auto-dealer franchise laws that prevent manufacturers from selling cars directly to consumers, telling a Federal Trade Commission audience on Tuesday that the rules are nonsensical.

Tesla general counsel Todd Maron said the argument that dealer laws protect consumers is “counter-intuitive to every economic principle that exists.”

“The dealers have said in court in our cases that it’s us who are lowering the prices and that’s what’s harming them,” Maron said.

His comments came during an FTC workshop on auto distribution policies, where experts debated the influence and necessity of dealership regulations. The meeting was not an official gathering of the commission, which is not expected to take direct action following the discussion but could eventually take steps to overhaul the current system.

State direct-distribution laws prevent auto manufacturers with dealer networks from selling cars directly to consumers over the Internet or through their own retail outlets.

But Tesla, which was founded in the 2000s as a luxury electric-car maker, avoided those requirements by refusing to establish dealerships from the beginning. The company sells its Model S sedan and Model X crossover directly to consumers through a network of stores and its website.

Since then, the company has engaged in a legal battle in several states that have sought to prevent the Silicon Valley automaker from selling its cars.

In Michigan, for example, headquarters to the U.S. operations of the Big Three automakers, Tesla is not allowed to operate stores.

Paul Norman, a lawyer for Boardman & Clark who has represented the National Automobile Dealers Association, said dealer franchise laws should be preserved because they foster competition. For example, Chevrolet dealers compete with each other for customers.

Most dealers sell vehicles at slightly above break-even, making a living primarily off of maintenance service and financing products.

“Inter-brand competition is good,” Norman said. “And why is it good? It lowers prices. It increases the quality of services.”

Maron blasted dealers for perpetuating “protectionist interests and a desire to cement a monopoly on the distribution of cars.” He also singled out General Motors for trying to prevent Tesla from selling cars.

GM did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

Maron argued that dealers have no interest in selling electric vehicles because they do not require much maintenance, thus undercutting their typical business model. He also argued that Tesla sells customized cars at factory price, in contrast to dealers that obtain units in bulk and are free to sell cars at a markup.

University of Michigan professor Dan Crane, who has studied the issue, argued that direct-distribution policies “can chill product and market innovation.”

“These are dealer-protection laws,” he said. “There is not a whiff of consumer-protection sentiment in these statutes.”

Crane said that if dealers ensure lower prices, which he doubts, there should be no problem with allowing direct distribution.

“We’ll find out whether direct distribution leads to consumer savings — that’s what the markets are for,” Crane said.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.