Tag: economic way of thinking

Trade Is Not a Trade-Off: The Stronger Case for Free Trade

Too many advocates of trade liberalization don’t really understand the case for free trade. Consider this sympathetic interview by Steve Inskeep of NPR with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, the chief negotiator of the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

INSKEEP: Froman argues the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will give U.S. industries more access to foreign markets. Granted, there’s a trade-off. Other nations get more access to the U.S. for their products. Froman contends that, at least, happens slowly as tariffs or import taxes drop.

FROMAN: The tariff on imported trucks from Japan, as an example, won’t go away for 30 years. On apparel and textiles, we worked very closely with the textile manufacturers in the U.S. to come up with an outcome that they could be comfortable with, so that we’ll let in clothes coming that are made Vietnam or made in Malaysia, but they’ve got to use U.S. fabric.

Inskeep refers to the lowering of U.S. tariffs as “a trade-off,” and Froman accepts that characterization. Both operate from the premise that Americans want other countries to reduce their barriers to our exports, and that the “trade-off” for that benefit is that we must reduce our own trade barriers.

That’s backwards. The benefit of trade is that we get access to goods and services that we might not get otherwise, or we get to pay lower prices for the goods we want. More broadly, we want free – or at least freer – trade in order 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.

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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!):

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