Free trade is a good moral concept for the simple reason that politicians and bureaucrats should not be allowed to interfere with voluntary transactions between consenting adults.
It’s also a good economic concept for the simple reason that protectionists can’t provide good answers to simple questions.
And free trade is a good geopolitical concept because it is far better than foreign aid as a mechanism for generating prosperity in less-developed nations.
Writing for the Economic Times of India, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center writes about the benefits of open markets among nations.
With one simple policy—more free trade—we could make the world $500 trillion better off and lift 160 million people out of extreme poverty. …reducing trade barriers not only makes the world richer, it is a great enabler for reducing poverty, curtailing hunger, improving health and restoring the environment. …Freer trade essentially means that each country can focus on doing what it does best, making all countries better off.
The good news is that global trade has been substantially liberalized. Protectionist barriers are much lower than they were a few decades ago.
Indeed, shifts to freer trade have helped compensate for growing fiscal burdens in the post-WWII era.
But we also have bad news. There are still sectors where trade taxes and other protectionist policies inhibit voluntary exchange, most notably for agriculture and textiles.
Lomborg cites data about the huge gains that would be possible if these sectors were liberalized.
The direct economic benefits would be a 1.1 per cent increase in global GDP. This sounds modest. But because it would impact the entire world economy, by 2030 we would be about $1.5 trillion richer every year. Open economies also grow faster. In the last 50 years, countries as diverse as South Korea, Chile and India have seen their rate of growth shoot up by 1.5 per cent per annum on average, shortly after liberalisation. If Doha can be completed, it is estimated that the global economy will grow by an extra 0.6 per cent for the next few decades. By 2030, such dynamic growth would make the world economy $11.5 trillion larger each year, leaving us 10 per cent more resources to fix all other problems. …By the end of the century, free trade could leave our grandkids 20 per cent better off, or with $100 trillion more every year than they would otherwise have had.
Lomborg is making the very important point that even modest increases in growth, sustained over long periods of time, can lead to huge increases in prosperity.
He correctly applies this analysis to the trade sector, but it’s a lesson that has universal applicability. It’s why we need better tax policy, a lower burden of government spending, less regulation and red tape, and better rule of law to limit government corruption.
But today’s focus is trade, so let’s look at a great video from Marginal Revolution University. Here’s Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University talking about the benefits of trade.
By the way, I didn’t notice it at first, but Tyler’s video doesn’t focus on international trade. He simply explains the benefit of trade among people.
But this also helps to explain why free trade across borders is good for growth. If it’s good for two people inside Virginia to engage in voluntary exchange, and if it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ohio to engage in voluntary exchange, then it’s also true that it’s good for a person in Virginia and a person in Ireland to engage in voluntary exchange.
Another subtle yet important secondary point from the video is that central planning is folly because no single bureaucrat, or group of bureaucrats, will ever have the necessary knowledge (much less incentive) to properly allocate resources. To elaborate, you just listened to Prof. Cowen explain that one of the big benefits of trade is that people can specialize in things where they have a comparative advantage. And when people specialize, they develop greater knowledge in particular fields, which further increases their productivity. Yet it’s impossible for that diffuse knowledge to be centralized, much less used properly.
Which is why centrally planned economies such as North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are such disasters.
And this also explains why nations that normally rely on markets get such bad results when politicians take control of specific sectors of the economy. Just consider the failures of Obamacare and the U.K.’s government-run healthcare system.
But let’s get back to the issue of trade.
Politicians sometimes make arguments about “economic patriotism.” If that simply meant, for instance, that they wanted a lower corporate tax rate to make American companies and workers more competitive, that would be fine.
But as we’ve seen with Obama, language about patriotism oftentimes is a ruse to push for protectionism and other bad policies.
And one of the reasons why the protectionism-patriotism argument doesn’t make sense is that it presumes a contest among nations. Yet as Walter Williams wisely explained, trade ultimately is between private individuals.
P.S. The MRU videos are great tutorials about economics. In prior posts, I’ve shared videos explaining how taxes destroy economic value, highlighting the valuable role of market-based prices, and revealing the destructive impact of government subsidies. They’re all worth a few minutes of your time.
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