Free trade; not trade wars or negotiated trade

With a lot of Americans fearful for their jobs and their president saying he can protect jobs with tariffs, international trade has become a big emotional issue.

Trade is such an emotional issue because our economy is organized such that our physical and psychological well-being requires us to have steady employment. At the same time economic changes require employment flexibility. One way to deal with this conflict would be to have a guaranteed income scheme so that individuals can cope with changes. My committment to such a scheme stands behind the rest of this post and indeed all the posts on this weblog. If people can survive comfortably without employment then this fear should no longer be a factor.

We should also analyse economic issues in physical or real terms rather than financial terms. Trade is the exchange of goods and services, not money which is a tool to facilitate the exchanges. It is very easy to get a distorted picture of the economy when people analyse economic problems in financial terms.

For all merchant-pull-1398066_1920we talk about the market economy and our devotion to competition, we have a long tradition of restricting competition. One of the ways we do that is by imposing tariffs on imports from other countries. Other ways we restrict competition with subsidies and legislation.

The economics law of comparative advantage says countries are better off to specialize and trade, even if one country is more efficient in the production of all items. This is attractive to people who want economic growth. This blogger also likes the idea of efficiency so that we can have more time for leisure activities.

I also believe the best way to do free trade is unilaterally. To do free trade and get the full benefits Canada should abolish all tariffs and restrictions on foreign goods and services coming into the country regardless of what other countries do. If other countries want to subsidize our lifestyle, then that is up to them. If they do not want to buy from us, then that is saving our resource base for the benefit of our children.

The free trade agreements of which governments are so fond are in reality negotiated trade agreements. They are negotiated for the sake of special interests of producers. These are the same interests as those who want legislation to restrict competition – patents, copyright, licensing – and who want subsidies for their firms. To get a feel for the complexity of these negotiations look at this article in The Economist. Trying to negotiate to satisfy the special interests of multiple countries must be an impossible challenge.

International trade is not such an important issue for Americans because the United States is one large free trade zone and they are or have benefited from the law of comparative advantage.

Economics is a social activity and like all relationships, to be satisfying for all parties there needs to be a more or less equal exchange. Those Americans who promote trade wars are being anti social. To me that sounds un-American.

Lots of politicians and commentators worry about the dire consequences of American tariffs and the resulting trade wars. Yes. we are headed into some even more serious economic problems but they will not be caused by tariffs and trade wars. The basic problem is that we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources. Increased efficiency from free trade will help us cope with this issue but will not solve it.

The benefits and challenges of free trade

Economists are generally in favor of free trade because most of them know the law of comparative advantage but I bet they would quickly change their minds if a “free trade agreement” were to specify that all economic teaching and advice were to be provided by the partner country.

It’s easy to see the benefits of trade but the obstacles can be overwhelming.

The law of comparative advantage tells us that two countries will produce more if they specialize in what they are most efficient and trade even if one of the countries is less efficient than the other in all areas of production.

The first thing to say is that free trade agreements are not what I learned was free trade.  To me free trade should be trade without any restrictions. There should be no tariffs, no quotas and no subsidies.  A country that wants free trade could and should do it unilaterally.  A free trade agreement should be called managed or negotiated trade as negotiations tend to focus on tradeoffs between commodities.  It is my understanding that countries which have conducted unilateral free trade have done very well.

The problem with free trade is that even though the countries as a whole will be better off some people fear they will lose. It becomes an emotional issue because some people are likely to lose their occupations and their income.

The challenge then is to make a win-lose proposition into a win-win so that everyone can share the benefits.  One way to do this would be with a universal income scheme.  The benefits could be in the form of increased income or increased free time for other activities.

Another aspect of trade is that it is a social activity whether we trade with a neighbor or somebody on the other side of the planet.  It is a bit of a stretch to think we have relationships with the Asian people who make our shirts but when some of them died in a workplace fire quite a few of us felt some pain –  for a short time. For relationships to be satisfactory there needs to be a more or less equal exchange.  If we want other countries to buy from us then we need to buy from them.

With the world economy in trouble everyone sees the answer to their problems is  to export more because domestic markets are slowing.  I think there is something wrong in that.  At the same time those who feel threatened by the free trade agreements now in the works will be strongly opposed.  The best bet would be to cooperate and look for win-win trade.

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