Free Trade Doesn’t Work, Why the Theory of Comparative Advantage is Wrong
By Ian Fletcher
In his book Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why, Ian Fletcher examines the emerging debate over the wisdom of ‘free trade’ as a sound policy for the American nation. In this article, he looks at the failings of the theory of comparative advantage, and the consequent implications for the reform of existing trade policies.
David Ricardo’s 1817 theory of comparative advantage is the core of the case for free trade. But contrary to the popular myth that ascribes to this theory blanket validity, it is in fact vitiated by dubious assumptions and only offers a weak and contingent argument for free trade. The assumptions are as follows:
Assumption #1: Trade is sustainable.
This problem divides into two parts: unsustainable imports and exports. When America, for example, does not cover the value of its imports with the value of its exports, it must make up the difference by either selling assets or assuming debt. If either is happening, America is either gradually being sold off to foreigners or gradually sinking into debt to them. We are poorer simply because we own less and owe more. And this situation is unsustainable. We have only so many existing assets we can sell off, and can afford to service only so much debt. By contrast, we can produce goods indefinitely. So deficit trade, if it goes on year after year, must eventually be curtailed—which will mean reducing our consumption one day. We get a decadent consumption binge today and pay the price tomorrow, but because mainstream economics doesn’t traffic in concepts like “decadent,” it doesn’t see anything wrong.
The implied solution is to tax imports. And that is not free trade.
Now consider unsustainable exports. This usually means a nation that is exporting nonrenewable natural resources. The same long vs. short-term dynamics will apply, only in reverse. A nation that exports too much will maximize its short-term living standard at the expense of its long-term prosperity. But mainstream economics—which means free trade—will again perversely report that this is “efficient.” The oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf are the most obvious example, and it is no accident that OPEC was the single most formidable disruptor of free trade in the entire post-WWII era. But other nations with large land masses, such as Canada, Australia, Russia, and Brazil, also depend upon natural resource exports to a degree that is unhealthy in the long run.
The implied solution is to tax or otherwise restrict nonrenewable exports.
And that is also not free trade.
Assumption #2: There are no externalities
The theory of comparative advantage, like all theories of free market economics, is driven by prices, so if prices are wrong due to positive or negative externalities, it will recommend suboptimal policies.
For example, goods from a nation with lax pollution standards will be too cheap. As a result, its trading partners will import too much of them.
And the exporting nation will export too much of them, over concentrating its economy in industries that are not really as profitable as they seem, due to ignoring pollution damage. Free trade positively encourages problems such as these, as skimping on pollution control is an easy way to grab a cost advantage.
Positive externalities are also a problem. If an industry generates technological spillovers for the rest of the economy, then free trade can let that industry be wiped out by foreign competition because the economy ignored its hidden value. Some industries spawn new technologies; losing these industries means losing all the industries that would have flowed from them in the future. These problems are the tip of an even larger iceberg known as GDP-GPI divergence. Negative externalities and related problems mean that increases in GDP can easily coincide with decreases in the so-called Genuine Progress Indicator or GPI. GPI includes things like resource depletion, environmental pollution, unpaid labor like housework, and unpaid goods like leisure time, thus providing a better metric of material well-being than raw GDP.
This implies that even if free trade were optimal from a GDP point of view (it isn’t), it could still be a bad idea economically.
Assumption #3: Factors of production move easily between industries.
The theory of comparative advantage is about reshuffling factors of production from less-valuable to more-valuable uses. But this assumes that the factors of production used to produce one product can switch to producing another. If they can’t, then imports won’t push a nation’s economy into industries better suited to its comparative advantage. Imports will just kill off its existing industries and leave nothing in their place.
Although this problem actually applies to all factors of production, we usually hear of it with regard to labor and real estate because people and buildings are the least mobile factors of production. When workers can’t move between industries—usually because they don’t have the right skills or don’t live in the right place—shifts in an economy’s comparative advantage won’t move them into an industry with lower opportunity costs, but into unemployment.
Sometimes the difficulty of reallocating workers shows up as outright unemployment, as in Western Europe with its rigid employment laws and high minimum wage. But in the United States, because of relatively low minimum wage and hire-and-fire labor laws, this problem tends to take the form of underemployment: a decline in the quality rather than quantity of jobs.
So $28 an hour ex-autoworkers go to work at the video rental store for eight dollars an hour. Or they are forced into part-time employment. This implies that low unemployment, on its own, doesn’t prove free trade has been a success. The human cost is obvious, but what is less obvious is the purely economic cost of writing off investments in human capital when skills that cost money to acquire are never used again.
In the Third World, decline in the quality of jobs often takes the form of workers pushed out of the formal sector of the economy entirely and into casual labor of one kind or another, where they have few rights, pensions, or other benefits. Mexico, for example, has over 40 percent of its workers in the informal sector.
Assumption #4: Trade does not raise income inequality.
When the theory of comparative advantage promises gains from free trade, these gains are only promised to the economy as a whole, not to any particular individuals or groups thereof. So it is entirely possible that even if the economy as a whole gets bigger thanks to freer trade, many (or even most) of the people in it may lose income. This is not a trivial problem: it has been estimated that freeing up trade reshuffles five dollars of income between different groups of people domestically for every one dollar of net gain it brings to the economy as a whole.
Free trade squeezes the wages of ordinary Americans largely because it expands the world’s effective supply of labor, which can move from rice paddy to factory overnight, faster than its supply of capital, which takes decades to accumulate at prevailing savings rates. As a result, free trade strengthens the bargaining position of capital relative to labor. This is especially true when combined with growing global capital mobility and the entry into capitalism of large formerly socialist nations such as India and China. As a result, people who draw most of their income from returns on capital (the rich) gain, while people who get most of their income from labor (the rest) lose.
The underlying mechanism of this analysis has long been part of mainstream economics in the form of the Stolper-Samuelson theorem. This theorem says that freer trade raises returns to the abundant input to production (in America, capital) and lowers returns to the scarce one (in America, labor). Because America has more capital per person, and fewer workers per dollar of capital, than the rest of the world, free trade tends to hurt American workers.
Free trade also affects different kinds of labor income differently. The impact of free trade on a worker in the U.S. is basically a function of how easy it is to substitute a cheaper foreign worker by importing the product the American produces. For extremely skilled jobs, like investment banking, it may be easy to substitute a foreigner, but foreign labor is just as expensive as American labor, so there is no impact on American wages. For jobs that cannot be performed remotely, such as waiting tables, it is impossible to substitute a foreign worker, so again there is no direct impact. The occupations that suffer most are those whose products are easily tradable and can be produced by cheap labor abroad.
There is another problem. Suppose that opening up a nation to freer trade means that it starts exporting more airplanes and importing more clothes than before. (This is roughly the situation the U.S. has been in.)
Because the nation gets to expand an industry better suited to its comparative advantage and contract one less suited, it becomes more productive and its GDP goes up, just like the theory says. So far, so good. But here’s the rub: suppose that a million dollars’ worth of clothes production requires one white-collar worker and nine blue-collar workers, while a million dollars of airplane production requires three white-collar workers and seven blue-collar workers. This means that for every million dollars’ change in what gets produced, there is a demand for two more white-collar workers and two fewer blue-collar workers. Because demand for white-collar workers goes up and demand for blue-collar workers goes down, the wages of white-collar workers will go up and those of blue-collar workers will go down. But most workers are blue-collar workers—so free trade has lowered wages for most workers in the economy!
It follows from the above problems that free trade, even if it performs as free traders say in other respects (it doesn’t), could still leave most Americans with lower incomes. And even if it expands our economy overall, it could still increase poverty. Taking an approximate mean of available estimates, we can attribute perhaps 25 percent of America’s three-decade rise in income inequality to freer trade. It was estimated in 2006 that the increase in inequality due to freer trade cost the average household earning the median income more than $2,000.
Assumption #5: Capital is not internationally mobile.
Despite its wide implications, the theory of comparative advantage is, at bottom, a very narrow theory. It is only about the best uses to which nations can put their factors of production. We have certain cards in hand, so to speak, the other players have certain cards, and the theory tells us the best way to play the hand we’ve been dealt. Or more precisely, it tells us to let the free market play our hand for us, so market forces can drive all our factors to their best uses in our economy.
Unfortunately, this all relies upon the impossibility of these same market forces driving these factors right out of our economy. If that happens, all bets are off about driving these factors to their most.
productive use in our economy. Their most productive use may well be in another country, and if they are internationally mobile, then free trade will cause them to migrate there. This will benefit the world economy as a whole, and the nation they migrate to, but it will not necessarily benefit us.
This problem actually applies to all factors of production. But because land and other fixed resources can’t migrate, labor is legally constrained in migrating, and people usually don’t try to stop technology or raw materials from migrating, the crux of the problem is capital. Capital mobility replaces comparative advantage, which applies when capital is forced to choose between alternative uses within a single national economy, or with its cousin absolute advantage. And absolute advantage contains no guarantees whatsoever about the results being good for both trading partners. The win-win guarantee is purely an effect of the world economy being yoked to comparative advantage and dies with it.
Absolute advantage is really the natural order of things in capitalism and comparative advantage is a special case caused by the existence of national borders that factors of production can’t cross. Indeed, that is basically what a nation is, from the point of view of economics: a part of the world with political barriers to the entry and exit of factors of production.
This forces national economies to interact indirectly, by exchanging goods and services made from those factors, which places comparative advantage in control. Without these barriers, nations would simply be regions of a single economy, which is why absolute advantage governs economic relations within nations. In 1950, Michigan had absolute advantage in automobiles and Alabama in cotton. But by 2000, automobile plants were closing in Michigan and opening in Alabama. This benefited Alabama, but it did not necessarily benefit Michigan. (It only would have if Michigan had been transitioning to a higher-value industry than automobiles. Helicopters?)
The same scenario is possible for entire nations if capital is internationally mobile.
Capital immobility doesn’t have to be absolute to put comparative advantage in control, but it has to be significant and as it melts away, trade shifts from a guarantee of win-win relations to a possibility of win-lose relations. David Ricardo, who was wiser than many of his own modern day followers, knew this perfectly well. As he put it:
“The difference in this respect, between a single country and many, is easily accounted for, by considering the difficulty with which capital moves from one country to another, to seek a more profitable employment, and the activity with which it invariably passes from one province to another of the same country.”
Ricardo then elaborated, using his favorite example of the trade in English cloth for Portuguese wine and cutting right to the heart of present-day concerns:
“It would undoubtedly be advantageous to the capitalists of England, and to the consumers in both countries, that under such circumstances the wine and the cloth should both be made in Portugal, and therefore that the capital and labor of England employed in making cloth should be removed to Portugal for that purpose.”
But he does not say it would be advantageous to the workers of England!
This is precisely the problem Americans experience today: when imports replace goods produced here, capitalists like the higher profits and consumers like the lower prices—but workers don’t like the lost jobs. Given that consumers and workers are ultimately the same people, this means they may lose more as workers than they gain as consumers. And there is no theorem in economics that guarantees that their gains will exceed their losses. Thus, free trade is sometimes a losing move for them.
“Absolute advantage is really the natural order of things in capitalism and comparative advantage is a special case caused by the existence of national borders that factors of production can’t cross.”
Assumption #6: Short-term efficiency causes long-term growth.
The theory of comparative advantage is a case of static analysis. That is, it looks at the facts of a single instant in time and determines the best response to those facts at that instant. This is not an intrinsically invalid way of doing economics—balancing one’s checkbook is an exercise in static analysis—but it is vulnerable to a key problem: it says nothing about dynamic facts. That is, it says nothing about how today’s facts may change tomorrow. More importantly, it says nothing about how one might cause them to change in one’s favor.
Even if the theory of comparative advantage tells us our best move today, given our productivities and opportunity costs in various industries, it doesn’t tell us the best way to raise those productivities tomorrow. That, however, is the essence of economic growth, and in the long run much more important than squeezing every last drop of advantage from the productivities we have today. Economic growth is ultimately less about using one’s factors of production than about transforming them. The difference between poor nations and rich ones mainly consists in the problem of turning Burkina Faso into South Korea; it does not consist in being the most efficient possible Burkina Faso forever. The theory of comparative advantage is not so much wrong about long-term growth as simply silent.
Ricardo’s own favorite example, the trade in English textiles for Portuguese wine, is very revealing here, though not in a way he would have liked. In Ricardo’s day, textiles were produced in England with then-state-of-the-art technology like steam engines. The textile industry thus nurtured a sophisticated machine tool industry to make the parts for these engines, which drove forward the general technological capabilities of the British economy. Wine, on the other hand, was made by methods that had not changed in centuries (and have only begun to change since about 1960, by the way). So for hundreds of years, wine production contributed no technological advances to the Portuguese economy. And its own productivity remained static: it did the same thing over and over again, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, because this was where Portugal’s immediate comparative advantage lay. It may have been Portugal’s best move in the short run, but it was a dead end in the long run.
Today, the theory of comparative advantage is similarly dangerous to poor and undeveloped nations because they tend, like Portugal, to have comparative advantage in industries that are economic dead ends. So despite being nominally free, free trade tends to lock them in place.
Assumption #7: Trade does not induce adverse productivity growth abroad.
Gains from free trade derive from the difference between our opportunity costs for producing products and the opportunity costs of our trading partners. This opens up a paradoxical but very real way for free trade to backfire.
When we Americans trade with a foreign nation, this will generally build up that nation’s industries, i.e., raise its productivity in them. Now it would be nice to assume that this productivity growth in our trading partners can only reduce their direct costs, therefore reduce their opportunity costs, and therefore increase our gains from trading with them. Our foreign suppliers will just become ever more efficient at supplying the things we want, and we will just get ever cheaper foreign goods in exchange for our own exports, right?
Wrong. Because, as noted, while productivity (output per unit of input) does determine direct costs, it doesn’t on its own determine opportunity costs. The alternative uses of factors of production do. As a result, productivity growth in some industries can actually raise our trading partners’ opportunity costs in other industries, by increasing what they give up producing in one industry in order to produce in another. If the number of rolls they can make from a pound of dough somehow goes up (rolls get fluffier?), this will make it more expensive for them to bake bread instead. So they may cease to supply us with such cheap bread!
Consider America’s present trade with China. Despite all the problems this trade causes us, we do get compensation in the form of some very cheap goods, thanks mainly to China’s very cheap labor. The same goes for other poor countries we import from. But labor is cheap in poor countries because it has poor alternative employment opportunities. What if these opportunities improve? Then this labor may cease to be so cheap, and our supply of cheap goods may dry up.
This is actually what happened in Japan from the 1960s to the 1980s, as Japan’s economy transitioned from primitive to sophisticated manufacturing and a lot of cheap Japanese merchandise disappeared from America’s stores. Did this reduce the pressure of cheap Japanese labor on American workers? Indeed. But it also deprived us of some very cheap goods we used to get.
Here things get slippery. Because gains from trade don’t derive from absolute but comparative advantage, these gains can be killed off without our trading partners getting anywhere near our own productivity levels. So the above problem doesn’t merely consist in our trading partners catching up to us in industrial sophistication. But if their relative tradeoffs for producing different goods cease to differ from ours, then our gains from trading with them will vanish. If Canada’s wheat vs. corn tradeoff is two units per acre vs. three and ours is four vs. six, all bets are off. Because both nations now face the same tradeoff ratio between producing one grain and the other, all possible trades will cost Canada exactly as much they benefit the US—leaving no profit, no motivation to trade, and no gain from doing so. And if free trade helped raise Canada’s productivity to this point, then free trade deprived us of benefits we used to get.
Thus free trade can “foul its own nest” and kill off the benefits of trade over time. Even within the most strictly orthodox Ricardian view, only the existence of gains from free trade is guaranteed. It is not guaranteed that changes induced by free trade will make these gains grow, rather than shrink. So free trade can do billions of dollars worth of damage even if Ricardo was right about everything else (he wasn’t).
Conclusion: Trade yes, free trade no
Given that the theory of comparative advantage has all of the above-described flaws, how much validity does it really have? Answer: some. Asking what industries a nation has comparative advantage in helps illuminate what kind of economy it has. And insofar as the theory’s assumptions do hold to some extent, some of the time, it can give us some valid policy recommendations. Fairly open trade, most of the time, is a good thing. But the theory was never intended to be by its own inventor, and its innate logic will not support its being, a blank check that justifies 100 percent free trade with 100 percent of the world, 100 percent of the time. It only justifies free trade insofar as its assumptions hold true, and they largely do not.
Adapted from Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why, by Ian Fletcher (CPA, 2011)
About the author
Ian Fletcher is Senior Economist of the Coalition for a Prosperous America, a nationwide grass-roots organization dedicated to fixing America’s trade policies and comprising representatives from business, agriculture, and labor. He was previously Research Fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a Washington think tank, and before that, an economist in private practice serving mainly hedge funds and private equity firms. Educated at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, he lives in San Francisco. He is the author of Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why.