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Free trade is a policy in international markets in which governments do not restrict imports or exports. Free trade is exemplified by the European Union / European Economic Area and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which have established open markets. Most nations are today members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) multilateral trade agreements. However, most governments still impose some protectionist policies that are intended to support local employment, such as applying tariffs to imports or subsidies to exports. Governments may also restrict free trade to limit exports of natural resources. Other barriers that may hinder trade include import quotas, taxes, and non-tariff barriers, such as regulatory legislation.
Free trade policies generally promote the following features:
Two simple ways to understand the proposed benefits of free trade are through David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage and by analyzing the impact of a tariff or import quota. An economic analysis using the law of supply and demand and the economic effects of a tax can be used to show the theoretical benefits and disadvantages of free trade.
Currently, the World Bank believes that, at most, rates of 20% can be allowed by developing nations; but Ha-Joon Chang believes higher levels may be justified because the productivity gap between developing and developed nations is much higher than the productivity gap which industrial countries faced. (A general feature is that the underdeveloped nations of today are not in the same position that the developed nations were in when they had a similar level of technology, because they are weak players in a competitive system; the developed nations have always been strong players, although formerly at an overall lower level.
Counterarguments to this point of view are that the developing countries are able to adopt technologies from abroad, whereas developed nations had to create new technologies themselves, and that developing countries have far richer markets to which to export than was the case in the 19th century. If the main defense tariffs is to stimulate infant industries, a tariff must be high enough to allow domestic manufactured goods to compete for the tariff to be successful. This theory, known as import substitution industrialization, is largely considered ineffective for currently developing nations.
The chart at the right analyzes the effect of the imposition of an import tariff on some imaginary good. Prior to the tariff, the price of the good in the world market (and hence in the domestic market) is Pworld. The tariff increases the domestic price to Ptariff. The higher price causes domestic production to increase from QS1 to QS2 and causes domestic consumption to decline from QC1 to QC2.
This has three main effects on societal welfare. Consumers are made worse off because the consumer surplus (green region) becomes smaller. Producers are better off because the producer surplus (yellow region) is made larger. The government also has additional tax revenue (blue region). However, the loss to consumers is greater than the gains by producers and the government. The magnitude of this societal loss is shown by the two pink triangles. Removing the tariff and having free trade would be a net gain for society.
An almost identical analysis of this tariff from the perspective of a net producing country yields parallel results. From that country's perspective, the tariff leaves producers worse off and consumers better off, but the net loss to producers is larger than the benefit to consumers (there is no tax revenue in this case because the country being analyzed is not collecting the tariff. Under similar analysis, export tariffs, import quotas, and export quotas all yield nearly identical results.
Sometimes consumers are better off and producers worse off, and sometimes consumers are worse off and producers are better off, but the imposition of trade restrictions causes a net loss to society because the losses from trade restrictions are larger than the gains from trade restrictions. Free trade creates winners and losers, but theory and empirical evidence show that the size of the winnings from free trade are larger than the losses.
According to mainstream economic theory, the selective application of free trade agreements to some countries and tariffs on others can lead to economic inefficiency through the process of trade diversion. It is economically efficient for a good to be produced by the country which is the lowest cost producer, but this does not always take place if a high cost producer has a free trade agreement while the low cost producer faces a high tariff. Applying free trade to the high cost producer (and not the low cost producer as well) can lead to trade diversion and a net economic loss. This is why many economists place such high importance on negotiations for global tariff reductions, such as the Doha Round.
The literature analysing the economics of free trade is extremely rich with extensive work having been done on the theoretical and empirical effects. Though it creates winners and losers, the broad consensus among economists is that free trade is a large and unambiguous net gain for society. In a 2006 survey of American economists (83 responders), "87.5% agree that the U.S. should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade" and "90.1% disagree with the suggestion that the U.S. should restrict employers from outsourcing work to foreign countries."
Quoting Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, "Few propositions command as much consensus among professional economists as that open world trade increases economic growth and raises living standards." Nonetheless, quoting Professor Peter Soderbaum of Malardalen University, Sweden, "This neoclassical trade theory focuses on one dimension, i.e., the price at which a commodity can be delivered and is extremely narrow in cutting off a large number of other considerations about impacts on employment in different parts of the world, about environmental impacts and on culture."
Most economists would agree that although increasing returns to scale might mean that certain industry could settle in a geographical area without any strong economic reason derived from comparative advantage, this is not a reason to argue against free trade because the absolute level of output enjoyed by both "winner" and "loser" will increase with the "winner" gaining more than the "loser" but both gaining more than before in an absolute level.
In the classic text An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Wealth of Nations), namely, in the passage "Of Restraints upon the Importation from Foreign Countries of such Goods as can be Produced at Home" economist Adam Smith describes reasons for allowing free trade.
Before the appearance of free trade doctrine, and continuing in opposition to it to this day, the policy of mercantilism had developed in Europe in the 16th century. Two early British economists who were opposed to mercantilism were Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
Economists that advocated free trade believed trade was the reason why certain civilizations prospered economically. Adam Smith, for example, pointed to increased trading as being the reason for the flourishing of not just Mediterranean cultures such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but also of Bengal (East India) and China. The great prosperity of the Netherlands after throwing off Spanish Imperial rule and pursuing a policy of free trade made the free trade/mercantilist dispute the most important question in economics for centuries. Free trade policies have battled with mercantilist, protectionist, isolationist, communist, populist, and other policies over the centuries.
Trade in colonial America was regulated by the British mercantile system through the Acts of Trade and Navigation. Until the 1760s, few colonists openly advocated for free trade, in part because regulations were not strictly enforced—New England was famous for smuggling—but also because colonial merchants did not want to compete with foreign goods and shipping. According to historian Oliver Dickerson, a desire for free trade was not one of the causes of the American Revolution. "The idea that the basic mercantile practices of the eighteenth century were wrong," wrote Dickerson, "was not a part of the thinking of the Revolutionary leaders".
Free trade came to what would become the United States as a result of American Revolutionary War, when the British Parliament issued the Prohibitory Act, blockading colonial ports. The Continental Congress responded by effectively declaring economic independence, opening American ports to foreign trade on April 6, 1776. According to historian John W. Tyler, "Free trade had been forced on the Americans, like it or not."
The 1st U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, advocated tariffs to help protect infant industries in his "Report on Manufactures." The "Jeffersonians" strongly opposed for the most part. Later, in the 19th century, statesmen such as Senator Henry Clay continued Hamilton's themes within the Whig Party under the name "American System." The opposition Democratic Party contested several elections throughout the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s in part over the issue of the tariff and protection of industry.
The Democratic Party favored moderate tariffs used for government revenue only, while the Whigs favored higher protective tariffs to protect favored industries. The economist Henry Charles Carey became a leading proponent of the "American System" of economics. This mercantilist "American System" was opposed by the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James K. Polk, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan.
The fledgling Republican Party led by Abraham Lincoln, who called himself a "Henry Clay tariff Whig", strongly opposed free trade and implemented a 44-percent tariff during the Civil War—in part to pay for railroad subsidies and for the war effort, and to protect favored industries. William McKinley (later to become President of the United States) stated the stance of the Republican Party (which won every election for President from 1868 until 1912, except the two non-consecutive terms of Grover Cleveland) as thus:
Under free trade the trader is the master and the producer the slave. Protection is but the law of nature, the law of self-preservation, of self-development, of securing the highest and best destiny of the race of man. [It is said] that protection is immoral…. Why, if protection builds up and elevates 63,000,000 [the U.S. population] of people, the influence of those 63,000,000 of people elevates the rest of the world. We cannot take a step in the pathway of progress without benefitting mankind everywhere. Well, they say, ‘Buy where you can buy the cheapest'…. Of course, that applies to labor as to everything else. Let me give you a maxim that is a thousand times better than that, and it is the protection maxim: ‘Buy where you can pay the easiest.' And that spot of earth is where labor wins its highest rewards.
Many classical liberals, especially in 19th and early 20th century Britain (e.g., John Stuart Mill) and in the United States for much of the 20th century (e.g., Cordell Hull), believed that free trade promoted peace. Woodrow Wilson included free-trade rhetoric in his "Fourteen Points" speech of 1918:
The program of the world's peace, therefore, is our program; and that program, the only possible program, all we see it, is this: [...]
3. The removal, so far as possible, of all economic barriers and the establishment of equality of trade conditions among all the nations consenting to the peace and associating themselves for its maintenance.
The British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) grew up with a belief in free trade; this underpinned his criticism of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 for the damage it did to the interdependent European economy. After a brief flirtation with protectionism in the early 1930s, he came again to favour free trade so long as it was combined with internationally coordinated domestic economic policies to promote high levels of employment, and international economic institutions that meant that the interests of countries were not pitted against each other. In these circumstances, "the wisdom of Adam Smith" again applied, he said.
In Kicking Away the Ladder, development economist Ha-Joon Chang reviews the history of free trade policies and economic growth, and notes that many of the now-industrialized countries had significant barriers to trade throughout their history. The United States and Britain, sometimes considered the homes of free trade policy, employed protectionism to varying degrees at all times. Britain abolished the Corn Laws, which restricted import of grain, in 1846 in response to domestic pressures, and it reduced protectionism for manufactures in the mid 19th century, when its technological advantage was at its height, but tariffs on manufactured products had returned to 23% by 1950. The United States maintained weighted average tariffs on manufactured products of approximately 40–50% up until the 1950s, augmented by the natural protectionism of high transportation costs in the 19th century. The most consistent practitioners of free trade have been Switzerland, the Netherlands, and to a lesser degree Belgium. Chang describes the export-oriented industrialization policies of the Four Asian Tigers as "far more sophisticated and fine-tuned than their historical equivalents".
Some degree of protectionism is nevertheless the norm throughout the world. Most developed nations maintain controversial agricultural tariffs. From 1820 to 1980, the average tariffs on manufactures in twelve industrial countries ranged from 11 to 32%. In the developing world, average tariffs on manufactured goods are approximately 34%.
Since the end of World War II, in part due to industrial supremacy and the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. government has become one of the most consistent proponents of reduced tariff-barriers and free trade, having helped establish the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and later the World Trade Organization (WTO); although it had rejected an earlier version in the 1950s (International Trade Organization or ITO). Since the 1970s U.S. governments have negotiated numerous managed-trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s, the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2006, and a number of bilateral agreements (such as with Jordan).
Most countries in the world are members of the World Trade Organization, which limits in certain ways but does not eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers. Most countries are also members of regional free trade areas that lower trade barriers among participating countries.
The Enabling Trade Index measures the factors, policies and services that facilitate the trade in goods across borders and to destination. It is made up of four sub-indexes: market access; border administration; transport and communications infrastructure; and business environment. The top 20 countries are:
The relative costs, benefits and beneficiaries of free trade are debated by academics, governments and interest groups.
Arguments for protectionism fall into the economic category (trade hurts the economy) or the moral category (the effects of trade might help the economy, but have ill effects in other areas); a general argument against free trade is that it is colonialism or imperialism in disguise. The moral category is wide, including concerns of destroying infant industries and undermining long-run economic development, income inequality, environmental degradation, supporting child labor and sweatshops, race to the bottom, wage slavery, accentuating poverty in poor countries, harming national defense, and forcing cultural change.
Economic arguments against free trade criticize the assumptions or conclusions of economic theories. Sociopolitical arguments against free trade cite social and political effects that economic arguments do not capture, such as political stability, national security, human rights and environmental protection.
Free trade is often opposed by domestic industries that would have their profits and market share reduced by lower prices for imported goods. For example, if United States tariffs on imported sugar were reduced, U.S. sugar producers would receive lower prices and profits, while U.S. sugar consumers would spend less for the same amount of sugar because of those same lower prices. The economic theory of David Ricardo holds that consumers would necessarily gain more than producers would lose. Since each of those few domestic sugar producers would lose a lot while each of a great number of consumers would gain only a little, domestic producers are more likely to mobilize against the lifting of tariffs. More generally, producers often favor domestic subsidies and tariffs on imports in their home countries, while objecting to subsidies and tariffs in their export markets.
Socialists frequently oppose free trade on the ground that it allows maximum exploitation of workers by capital. For example, Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, "The bourgeoisie... has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation." Nonetheless, Marx favored free trade solely because he felt that it would hasten the social revolution.
"Free trade" is opposed by many anti-globalization groups, based on their assertion that free trade agreements generally do not increase the economic freedom of the poor or the working class, and frequently make them poorer. Where the foreign supplier allows de facto exploitation of labor, domestic free-labor is unfairly forced to compete with the foreign exploited labor, and thus the domestic "working class would gradually be forced down to the level of helotry." To this extent, free trade is seen as nothing more than an end-run around laws that protect individual liberty, such as the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (outlawing slavery and indentured servitude).
It is important to distinguish between arguments against free trade theory, and free trade agreements as applied. Some opponents of NAFTA see the agreement as being materially harmful to the common people, but some of the arguments are actually against the particulars of government-managed trade, rather than against free trade per se. For example, it is argued that it would be wrong to let subsidized corn from the U.S. into Mexico freely under NAFTA at prices well below production cost (dumping) because of its ruinous effects to Mexican farmers. Of course, such subsidies violate free trade theory, so this argument is not actually against the principle of free trade, but rather its selective implementation.
It has long been argued that free trade is a form of colonialism or imperialism, a position taken by various proponents of economic nationalism and the school of mercantilism. In the 19th century these criticized British calls for free trade as cover for British Empire, notably in the works of American Henry Clay, architect of the American System and by German American economist Friedrich List.
More recently, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has denounced the "sophistry of free trade" in an introduction he wrote for a book titled The Hidden Face of Free Trade Accords, written in part by Correa's current Energy Minister Alberto Acosta. Citing as his source the book Kicking Away the Ladder, written by Ha-Joon Chang, Correa identified the difference between an "American system" opposed to a "British System" of free trade. The latter, he says, was explicitly viewed by the Americans as "part of the British imperialist system." According to Correa, Chang showed that it was Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and not Friedrich List, who was the first to present a systematic argument defending industrial protectionism.
It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.... If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.
This statement uses the concept of absolute advantage to present an argument in opposition to mercantilism, the dominant view surrounding trade at the time, which held that a country should aim to export more than it imports, and thus amass wealth. Instead, Smith argues, countries could gain from each producing exclusively the good(s) in which they are most suited to, trading between each other as required for the purposes of consumption. In this vein, it is not the value of exports relative to that of imports that is important, but the value of the goods produced by a nation. The concept of absolute advantage however does not address a situation where a country has no advantage in the production of a particular good or type of good.
This theoretical shortcoming was addressed by the theory of comparative advantage. Generally attributed to David Ricardo who expanded on it in his 1817 book On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, it makes a case for free trade based not on absolute advantage in production of a good, but on the relative opportunity costs of production. A country should specialize in whatever good it can produce at the lowest cost, trading this good to buy other goods it requires for consumption. This allows for countries to benefit from trade even when they do not have an absolute advantage in any area of production. While their gains from trade might not be equal to those of a country more productive in all goods, they will still be better off economically from trade than they would be under a state of autarky.