A Thought on Free Trade

…which I’ll assume for this post is structured between participant nations as fair trade, since it’s possible to have free and unfair trade, and it’s unfair trade that should be anathema.  Not all free trade is unfair; the parameters of any trade agreement, parameters that make the trade fair or unfair, are matters of mutual agreement (or perhaps not so mutual in the case of unfairness) among those participants.

Don Boudreaux triggered my thought with his piece in US News & World Report.

It’s true that trade destroys some particular jobs. … Being concentrated in a handful of industries, jobs lost to trade are easy to see. But the same trade that destroys jobs also creates jobs elsewhere in the American economy. These job gains, being spread across many industries, are difficult to see. But they are real.

In fact there is a net gain in jobs, albeit it’s a small net.  Being diffuse, that gain doesn’t get noticed any more than do the sets of jobs themselves.

Foreigners who sell to Americans get dollars in return. And like Americans who are paid in dollars, foreigners either spend or invest their dollars. When foreigners spend their dollars, American exports rise. More jobs are created in American industries that export.


American jobs are created also when foreigners invest their dollars. For example, when the Canadian company Tim Hortons opens new stores in the United States, not only are American workers employed to build or refurbish these stores, Americans are also employed to staff them. Or when Koreans use dollars to buy stock in Apple or Caterpillar, these companies become better able to expand operations.

About those last two quotes.  Those outcomes also apply from the trade partner’s perspective.  Simply swap in “partner” and “partner currency” and swap out “American” and “dollars” as applicable in those two paragraphs to see the application.

Both (all—there’s no need to suppose only bilateral arrangements) sides to international trade agreements make absolute gains, just as in a domestic free market economy, all citizens participating in a freely agreed exchange make absolute gains.  Even though among those individual participants, one man has a net outflow of his money, and the other man has a net outflow of his goods he’s presenting in trade, both men have gained from their trade.

This is where the demand of some who are pleased to call themselves economists in the Trump administration go so badly wrong.  Their demand for balance in absolute terms—no import/export imbalance, no greater outflow of money than inflow—is impossible to achieve in a truly free and fair international trade environment.  Balance requires trade to be a zero-sum gain.  Free trade isn’t, though; all participants gain from free, fair trade.  Balance not only cannot be achieved, it’s undesirable.

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