Brexit: the unilateral free trade option

 

As the British and the Europeans renegotiate the European Union following a British referendum a number of options are being considered.  What will not be considered is the option which would in the long term give the best standard of living – unilateral free trade.

For a long time this blogger has believed the best way to do free trade is for a country to do it on its own by removing all barriers to imports.  “Free trade” agreements are not free trade, they are negotiated trade.  To get the full benefits of the law of comparative advantage there must be no barriers to imports. There should be no import duties, no quotas and health and safety restrictions should be genuine rather than to restrict imports.

Unilateral free trade could easily be done by any country as each country has the right to control its imports.  This will leave them open to “dumping” or subsidies by trading partners.  If another country wants to subsidize our standard of living, then we should say, “Thank you very much”.

The case for free trade is based on the law of comparative advantage which says that two countries will be better off if they specialize in their most efficient production and trade even if one of the countries is more efficient in all trading items.  With our background we generally think of better off as meaning more economic growth but it could also mean more leisure time.  The law still applies.

There are two major problems with unilateral free traded – our  commitment to economic growth and the difficulty in making employment changes.

This blogger believes there will be little if any future economic growth because we have used up the easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  There are lots left on the surface of this planet but they are so difficult to extract they are mostly useless.  I also believe many people are aware of this economic uncertainty even if they do not understand what is happening.  This is probably behind the British vote for Brexit, the United States election of Donald Trump,  the increasing popularity of extreme left and right wing politicians and the rise of dictatorships around the world and a lot of other unpleasant developments.

The fear of losing one’s job is highly emotional and this is the second big problem with free trade.  Free trade means changes in production and this means some people will lose their jobs and have to find new employment.  The other side of this problem is that economic changes are a fact of life and will happen regardless of free trade.  We try to deal with changing market conditions with subsidies, import quotas, health and safety restrictions on imports and other trade restrictions. In the long term market forces usually win.

Under current economic conditions a lot of people are likely to lose their employment and a lot of people are going to suffer.  The challenge should be to facilitate the changes and reduce the suffering.  Most people are going to have to accept a lower standard of living.  This blogger believes the best way to adjust is to introduce a basic income plan.  For more discussion of this please see the rest of this weblog and my book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy.

This guy believes the British and the Europeans would benefit if the British were to use the referendum as an opportunity for unilateral free trade.  I also would not want to be a part of the negotiating team as there is unlikely to be a consensus as to what degree of trade to negotiate.  There is so much fear, so many emotions and so many conflicting interests that it will be difficult to come up with something most people will be able to accept.  There is likely to be a lot of turmoil.

 

 

Exporting back to economic growth

Some people give lip service to the idea that economies can export their way back to growth. It is lip service because it is not practical.

The idea is that if the local economy is sluggish, we can increase output by selling more to others.  There are two problems with this. The downturn is world-wide and it is going to be very difficult to find foreigners with spare cash.  The second problem is that trade has to be a two-way street.  Increased sales will have to be matched with increased purchases.

Free trade is based on the law of comparative advantage which states that two countries will produce more if they specialize in items at which they are most efficient and trade even if the other country is more efficient at the items they are not producing.  This is usually interpreted to mean total output will increase but I think it could also mean more efficient production leaving more time for other activities such as leisure.

The big problem in implementing free trade is making the adjustments as some people will lose their employment and have to make changes.  Most of us most of the time, think and act in our own short-term interests.  Most economists are in favour of free trade but I have never heard it suggested that economic advice should be included and outsourced to another country.  If we really wanted to try free trade the best way would be for a country to do it unilaterally.  We should remove all subsidies and other barriers to imports and not worry about what other countries do.  If they want to support our consumption, we should not object.

This guy figures the major economic issue facing the world today is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources  Yes, there are lots left but they are so difficult and expensive to extract that they are probably not useful to us.  The result is that we are heading into a prolonged period of economic decline.

If this is true then trying to increase production will consume the remaining resources even faster and will bring forward a major economic collapse.  The way to deal with the crisis is an orderly reduction of production and standards of living.  Not likely to happen.

More likely people will blame Brexit and the results of the U.S. election for continued economic problems.

What ever happens and whatever the reason it appears we are in for an extended time of economic decline.  What we most need is clear and realistic thinking about economic issues.  What we least need is desperate attempts to return to growth and scapegoats.

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