Why We Trade

Imagine life in isolation, waking every morning before sunrise to make your own clothes, build and repair your meager shelter, hunt and harvest your own food, concoct rudimentary salves for what physically ails you, and attend to the upkeep of your brutish existence engaging in other difficult and tedious tasks. Forget leisure or luxuries; all of your time would be consumed trying to produce basic necessities merely to subsist.

Fortunately, that’s no longer the way most of humanity organizes its economic activities. We don’t attempt to make everything we need or want to consume, but instead specialize in a few, or a couple, or just one value-added endeavor – one profession. This specialization is possible because we accept and embrace the concept of cooperation in the form of exchange. We realize that by specializing, we can focus our efforts on what we do best, and produce more value than would be possible if we had to attend to the production of all of our needs and wants. Because we can exchange our output (monetized in the forms of wages and salaries) for the output of others, we don’t even have to know the first thing about hammering a nail, mixing mortar, making thread, yarn, and cloth, threading a needle, whittling an arrow to kill a deer, or any of the details of the incredibly complex processes and supply chains that generate the products and services we consume daily.  Fortunately (but sadly, too), most of us never give it a second thought.  

If two people focusing their efforts on the tasks they do best and exchanging their daily surpluses enables both to consume more or better quality output, then it should readily follow that four people or eight or eighty or eight million participating in this cooperative economic relationship can lead to much higher volumes of output (wealth) and much greater consumption and savings (higher living standards).  This is the purpose of exchange. It enables us to specialize.  And when there are more participants in the market (more with whom to exchange) there is greater scope for more refined levels of specialization. That means greater opportunities to match individuals’ precise skills and faculties (or to cultivate then match those precise skills and faculties) with increasingly specialized tasks and professions created in response to the increasingly refined demands of societies as they produce even greater wealth and higher living standards. 

We’ve come a long way from exchanging cloth and wine.  No longer are people’s choices restricted to being sober and clothed or naked and drunk. Today, we can almost have it all. Whereas once there were witchdoctors serving as generalist medical practitioners, today (in Washington, DC, I am told) there is burgeoning demand for the services of psychiatrists who specialize in treating the emotional and psychological adjustment costs associated with being an expat spouse of a foreign diplomat from Western Europe.  It’s become that specialized. Imagine hearing: “Sorry, my specialty is in talking spouses of diplomats through their neuroses brought on by resettling in Washington from places like Stockholm, Amsterdam, Paris, or London.  Since you’re from Warsaw, let me recommend a different specialist who focuses on treating Polish ex-pats with similar conditions.”

The purpose of exchange is to enable each of us to focus our productive efforts on what we do best.  By specializing in an occupation — instead of allocating small portions of our time to the impossible task of producing each of the necessities and luxuries we wish to consume — and exchanging the monetized output we produce most efficiently for the goods and services we produce less efficiently, we are able to produce and consume more output than would be the case in the absence of specialization and trade. The larger the size of the market, the greater is the scope for specialization, exchange, and economic growth.

Free trade is the extension of free markets across political borders.  Enlarging markets in this manner – to integrate more buyers, sellers, investors and workers – enables more refined specialization and economies of scales, which lead to greater wealth and higher living standards. When goods, services, capital, and labor flow freely across borders, Americans can take full advantage of the opportunities of the international marketplace.

The purpose of trade is to enable us to specialize; the purpose of specialization is to enable us to produce more; the purpose of producing more is to enable us to consume more.  More and better consumption is the purpose of trade. Thus, the benefits of trade come from imports, which deliver more competition, greater variety, lower prices, better quality, and innovation. The real benefits of trade are measured by the value of imports that can be purchased with a unit of exports — the so-called terms of trade. When we transact at the local supermarket, we seek to maximize the value we obtain by getting the most for our dollars.

But when it comes to trading across borders or when our individual transactions are aggregated at the national level, we seem to forget these basic principles and assume the goal of exchange is to achieve a trade surplus. We forget that trade barriers at home raise the costs and reduce the amount of imports that can be purchased with a unit of exports.  U.S. trade barriers hurt U.S. citizens, as consumers, taxpayers, workers, producers, and investors. Americans would be better off if we simply undertook our own reforms – on tariffs, regulations, and other artificial impediments to commerce – without regard for what other government’s do. Yet we don’t.

Although tariffs and other trade barriers have been reduced considerably since the end of the Second World War, U.S. policy continues to accommodate egregious amounts of protectionism.  We have “Buy American” rules that restrict most government procurement spending to U.S. suppliers, ensuring that taxpayers get the smallest bang for their buck; heavily protected services industries, such as air transportation and shipping, that drive up the cost of everything; apparently interminable farm subsidies; quotas and high tariffs on imported sugar; high tariffs on basic consumer products, such as clothing and footwear; energy export restrictions; the market-distorting cronyism of the Export-Import bank; antidumping duties that strangle downstream industries and tax consumers; regulatory protectionism masquerading as public health and safety precautions; protectionist rules of origin and local content requirements that limit trade’s benefits; restrictions on foreign investment, and so on.

It is sad, but true, that Congress seems to have forgotten why we trade.