Two Objections to Free Trade
By David Henderson
In my recent Defining Ideas article titled “A Refresher Course on Free Trade,” I made the case for free trade. A large part of the economic case is that free trade makes people in the country that adopts it better off than if their government hadn’t adopted it. It makes imports cheaper, allows consumers to get a more varied range of goods, and causes labor and capital to be allocated to areas of the economy where they are most productive.
In the United States in recent years, there have been two main objections to free trade. The first is that when free or freer trade is introduced into a particular sector, producers in that sector, both owners of capital and laborers, will be worse off. Therefore, argue some of the people who make this point, either trade shouldn’t be liberalized or, at least, introduction of trade should be accompanied by government spending to compensate the losers. The second objection is that free trade benefits mainly the wealthy and does little for the workers who are living on the economic edge. The first objection is often true in the short run but almost always false in the long run; it also applies to any economic change whether that change is caused by international trade or purely domestic economic interactions; in short, the objection proves too much. The second objection is simply false.
This is from David R. Henderson, “Dispelling Two Objections to Free Trade,” Defining Ideas, July 1, 2021.
Second, there is nothing special about free trade. Indeed, in a large economy like that of the United States, most trade is not across borders but is between people within the US borders. In 2019, imports were about 14.6 percent of gross domestic product. That sounds high, and is high, but that number confirms that most trade in the United States is between and among people in the United States. When a new technology or even a new way of running a business helps consumers, it also destroys many businesses and hurts workers who lose their jobs or who must work at a lower pay to keep their jobs.
We don’t need to go back far to see such examples. When I taught in the business school at the University of Rochester in the late 1970s, some of my evening MBA students who worked at Kodak called it the “big yellow money machine.” Kodak was riding high on the technology that innovator George Eastman and his successors had created and perfected. But digital cameras in the 1980s and 1990s and, later, cell phones that got better and better at taking still shots and movies, virtually destroyed the market for Kodak’s product. It’s true that part of the causes was international trade in cell phones. But even without cell phones from other countries, US cell phone producers were plenty capable of competing Kodak into bankruptcy.
One more excerpt:
For 2019, the latest data available, households in the bottom two quintiles, which is about 53 million households, spent an average of $1,032 per year on clothing. That’s out of an average after-tax income of $22,591. So they spent 4.6 percent of their income on clothing. Because clothing prices fell over that time, they would have bought more clothing at the lower price. So we will understate their gain if we assume that they were insensitive to price and bought the same amount of clothing that they would have at the higher pre-expanded-trade price. Even assuming no further drop in clothing prices after 2103, the 24 percent drop in price was important for a household with such limited means. The clothing they would have bought in 1997 would have cost an inflation-adjusted amount of $1,358. So the average family in the two bottom fifths of the income distribution saved $326 on clothing alone. Over 53 million households, that is a gain of about $17.3 billion. Assuming that the 650,000 people who lost their jobs lost as much as $10,000 each per year, which is probably an overestimate, their loss was $6.5 billion, which is less than 38 percent of the gain. Moreover, the average worker in a clothing factory in the United States, along with her or her family, almost certainly earned more than $22,591, the average income of the bottom two-fifths.
Read the whole thing.