The Benefit of Free Trade Is Not Exports, It’s Lower Prices on Things We Want

In the news this morning, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–UT), author of the Trade Promotion Authority bill, makes the usual case for trade agreements and TPA:

We need to get this bill passed. We need to pass it for the American workers who want good, high-paying jobs. We need to pass it for our farmers, ranchers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs who need access to foreign markets in order to compete. We need to pass it to maintain our standing in the world.

It’s certainly good that the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee supports freer trade. But I fear he’s as confused as most Washingtonians about the actual case for free trade.

This whole “exports and jobs” framework is misguided. Thirty years ago in the Cato Journal, the economist Ronald Krieger explained the difference between the economist’s and the non-economist’s views of trade. The economist believes that “The purpose of economic activity is to enhance the wellbeing of individual consumers and households.” And, therefore, “Imports are the benefit for which exports are the cost.” Imports are the things we want—clothing, televisions, cars, software, ideas—and exports are what we have to trade in order to get them.

And thus, Krieger continues, point by point:

Cheap foreign goods are thus an unambiguous benefit to the importing country.

The objective of foreign trade is therefore to get goods on advantageous terms.

That is why we want free—or at least freer—trade: to remove the impediments that prevent people from finding the best ways to satisfy their wants. Free trade allows us to benefit from the division of labor, specialization, comparative advantage, and economies of scale.

I write about this in The Libertarian Mind (buy it now!):

Politicians just don’t seem to get this. President Obama’s official statement on “Promoting U.S. Jobs by Increasing Trade and Exports” mentions exports more than forty times; imports, not once. His Republican critics agree: Senator Rob Portman says that a trade agreement “is vital to increasing American exports.” More colorfully, during his 1996 presidential campaign, Pat Buchanan stood at the Port of Baltimore and said, “This harbor in Baltimore is one of the biggest and busiest in the nation. There needs to be more American goods going out.”

That’s fundamentally mistaken. We don’t want to send any more of our wealth overseas than we have to in order to acquire goods from overseas. If Saudi Arabia would give us oil for free, or if South Korea would give us televisions for free, Americans would be better off. The people and capital that used to produce televisions—or used to produce things that were traded for televisions—could then shift to producing other goods. Unfortunately for us, we don’t get those goods from other countries for free. But if we can get them cheaper than it would cost us to produce them ourselves, we’re better off.

Sometimes international trade is seen in terms of competition between nations. We should view it, instead, like domestic trade, as a form of cooperation. By trading, people in both countries can prosper. And we should remember that goods are produced by individuals and businesses, not by nation-states. “South Korea” doesn’t produce televisions; “the United States” doesn’t produce the world’s most popular entertainment. Individuals, organized into partnerships and corporations in each country, produce and exchange. In any case, today’s economy is so globally integrated that it’s not clear even what a “Japanese” or “Dutch” company is. If Apple Inc. produces iPads in China and sells them in Europe, which “country” is racking up points on the international scoreboard? The immediate winners would seem to be investors and engineers in the United States, workers in China, and consumers in Europe; but of course the broader benefits of international trade will accrue to investors, workers, and consumers in all those areas.

The benefit of international trade to consumers is clear: We can buy goods produced in other countries if we find them better or cheaper. There are other benefits as well. First, it allows the division of labor to work on a broader scale, enabling the people in each country to produce the goods at which they have a comparative advantage. As Mises put it, “The inhabitants of [Switzerland] prefer to manufacture watches instead of growing wheat. Watchmaking is for them the cheapest way to acquire wheat. On the other hand the growing of wheat is the cheapest way for the Canadian farmer to acquire watches.”