The most principled case for free trade is a moral one: voluntary economic exchange is inherently fair, benefits both parties, and allocates scarce resources more efficiently than a system under which government dictates or limits choices. Moreover, government intervention in voluntary economic exchange on behalf of some citizens necessarily comes at the expense of others and is inherently unfair and inefficient, and subverts the rule of law.
Trade barriers are the result of productive resources being diverted to achieve political ends and, in the process, taxing unsuspecting consumers to line the pockets of the special interests that succeed in enlisting the weight of the government on their side. At their core, trade barriers are the triumph of coercion and politics over free choice and economics.
When people are free to buy from, sell to, and invest with one another as they choose, they can achieve far more than when governments attempt to control their decisions. Widening the circle of people with whom we transact brings benefits to consumers in the form of lower prices, greater variety, and better quality, and it allows companies to reap the benefits of innovation, specialization, and economies of scale that larger markets afford. Free markets are essential to prosperity, and expanding free markets as much as possible enhances that prosperity.
On this page you will find Cato’s appeals to first principles: arguments for free trade that ignore the political constraints and that go beyond discussion of the affirmative net economic benefits of trade liberalization to include discussions of individual rights and morality.