More Challenges to “More ‘Free Trade’ Is Always Better” Orthodoxy

One way to induce a Pavlovian reflex in mainstream economists is to invoke the expression “free trade”. Conventional wisdom holds that more trade is always better; only Luddites and protectionists are against it. That’s one big reason why the toxic TransPacific Partnership and its evil twin, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, have gotten virtually no critical scrutiny, save from more free-thinking economists like Dean Baker. They have been sold as “free trade” deals and no Serious Economist wants to besmirch his reputation by appearing to be opposed to more liberalized trade.

“Free trade” boosterism runs two parallel arguments: the “’free trade’ increases wealth and therefore we should all go along” and and the “more open trade is inevitable, you better be on this bus or you will be under the bus.” Too often, these arguments rest on the assumption that coming close to the economists’ fantasy of frictionless ‘free trade’ is better. But that was debunked in 1953, in the Lipsey-Lancaster theorem, which demonstrated that trying to move to closer to an unattainable state was not only not assured to produce better outcomes, it could very well produce worse ones. You actually need to do the work of evaluating various “second best” alternatives, rather than assuming more is better. But even though economists know about Lipsey/Lancaster, they dismiss its inconvenient implications.

Moreover, there are other sound critiques of our “more ‘free trade’ is every and always better” regime. William Greider has long pointed out that we do not operate under a free trade regime, but a managed trade system, and virtually all of our trading partners negotiate them from a mercantilist perspective: that they aim to run trade surpluses and protect their workers. Dani Rodrik has described a trilemma: that you can’t simultaneously have deep integration of markets, national sovereignity, and democracy. At least one of them has to give. And we can see in Europe that it is democracy that is being sacrificed.

But these criticisms have been treated as fringe phenomena. What is noteworthy, however, that it is suddenly acceptable to question the ‘free trade’ orthodoxy, although the critics take great care to distance themselves from any populist or labor-favoring taint.

We took note of one last week, of a hand-wringing piece in that bastion of correct economic thinking, Project Syndicate, in which Ian Goldin lamented that globalization had increased systemic risk on numerous fronts: environmental, financial, political, technological. Goldin wasn’t willing to buck conventional wisdom and use his observation to suggest that “free trade” may have gone past its point of maximum advantage. But the fact that the only solution he could envision was the pipe-dream of better governance was telling.

A fresh article, again at Project Syndicate, has the former head of the FSA, Adair Turner, making a more direct, but short of head-on, challenge to “free trade” orthodoxy. Turner’s point is that trade is unlikely to do much to drive further growth, and economists and policymakers have much better focuses for their energies. He also points out that to the extent that further liberalization of trade does increase GDP, it is likely to come at a cost.

Key sections of his article (hat tip David L):

[F]or 65 years, rapid trade growth has played a vital role in economic development…

But there is no reason why trade should grow faster than GDP forever. Indeed, even if there were no trade barriers at all, trade might grow significantly more slowly than GDP in some periods. Several factors make it possible that we are entering such a period.

For starters, there is the changing pattern of consumption in the advanced economies. Richer people spend an increasing share of their income on services that are either impossible to trade (for example, restaurant meals) or difficult to trade (such as health services)…

In addition, as the economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT have argued in their book The Second Machine Age…the advantages of proximity to customers and lower transport costs outweigh decreasingly important differences in labor costs…

With industrial tariffs already dramatically reduced most potential benefits of trade liberalization have already been grasped. Estimates of the benefits of further trade liberalization are often surprisingly low – no more than a few percentage points of global GDP..

The main reason for slow progress in trade negotiations is not increasing protectionism; it is the fact that further liberalization entails complex trade-offs no longer offset by very large potential benefits. The Doha Round’s failure has been decried as a setback for developing countries. And some liberalization – say, of advanced economies’ cotton imports – would undoubtedly benefit some low-income economies. But full trade liberalization would have a complex impact on the least developed economies, some of which would benefit only if compensated for the loss of the preferential access to advanced-economy markets that they currently enjoy.

This implies that further progress in trade liberalization will be slow. But slow progress is a far less important challenge to growth prospects than the debt overhang in developed economies, or infrastructure and educational deficiencies in many developing economies. That reality often goes unacknowledged. The importance of past trade liberalization has left the global policy establishment with a bias toward assuming that further liberalization would bring similar benefits.

This is an important argument, which sadly is likely to get little traction: at this stage of economic development, trade deals are largely beside the point. And that reality is perversely acknowledged in the TTP and the TTIP. They are not about “free trade”. They are, in the case of the TTP, to advance US geopolitical aims by isolating China, and in the case of both proposed pacts, to weaken national sovereignity to make the world safer for multinationals. The revolving door payoffs for the members of the US Trade Representative’s office must be really juicy for them to be so eager to engage in treason.

This piece is cross-posted from Naked Capitalism with permission.

One Response to "More Challenges to “More ‘Free Trade’ Is Always Better” Orthodoxy"

  1. Don   July 22, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    In my view, a major problem with existing trade agreements are two kinds of penalties for US companies. One is that many developing countries let companies externalize a lot of costs that are real costs for US companies. These include costs of compliance with OSHA, product safety, and environmental regulations as well as safety net costs for Social Security, Medicare, and health insurance. These costs are absent or poorly enforced in developing countries. Also, some developed countries pay part of their safety net costs with valued added taxes, which are rebated for exported goods. We also seem to be afraid to enforce currency manipulation laws. We need to fix existing trade agreements, not add additional ones which neuter our democracy and sovereignty.