Sunday, March 30, 2008

Free Trade and the Liberal Bourgeoisies

I blogged last week about two groups cited as opposing free trade. The first were the working class of developed countries – this group is correctly concerned about their own jobs, incomes, families, and livelihoods. Although trade is good overall, it hurts some groups because the gains are uneven, and this group is the most likely to suffer in the short run.

The second group consisted of "liberal hippies" who are sort of caricatured as English professors (no offense intended to the English professors in my own college) and their idealistic young students. Their ideas are romantic, and their ends are admirable and include: reducing global poverty, saving the environment, ending armed conflict in the globe, child labor, gender and racial discrimination (er, reducing them, that is), and so on. Their means for accomplishing them on the other hand are somewhere between self-conflicting and patently stupid because they almost always include imposing trade restrictions on countries who appear to be behaving in an unsatisfactory way or tying these issues to trade negotiations. Oh, what a tangled web they weave…

Let me start though with the empirical evidence on such issues:

Poverty: With a few exceptions, trade has been found to alleviate poverty in most countries that are "open." Viet Nam is a good example, where textile industries boomed as a result of trade, which was paired with the adoption of better technologies in the rice sector and a win-win or poor families. Here's another story from NPR on China, and a complementary piece, also from NPR. It's an interesting tale of factories in China shutting down, which seems sad at first, but digging deeper, much of the jobs lost are due to the fact that labor markets are becoming more competitive, workers are seeking jobs with other firms, and wages and labor standards are increasing.

Environment: The effect of trade on the environment is tough to pin down. The only thing that can really be said is that assuming trade leads to greater productivity, higher incomes and a "growth spurt" in developing countries, then it will also lead to increased demand for energy resources, and put greater strain on the environment. There are two problems with this proposition. First, even if it is valid, liberal hippies have to concede the point on poverty to make it true. If trade leads to growth and increases household consumption of carbon-emitting fuels, then it is probably because they are less poor. To restrict trade would be to deny poor families the opportunities that greater wealth brings and we would be inflicting poverty on 60% of the world's population in an attempt to put a band-aid on environmental harm. Second, the proposition above assumes that with growth these economies will stupidly continue to use the same harmful technologies and not adopt cleaner ones. Even China has recognized that they need to resolve this issue, with an increasing number of "zero energy/zero emissions" skyscrapers being built and carbon capture technology being better investigated.

Child Labor, Social Issues, etc.: Globalization brings these issues more to our attention than anything else. These things have always been problems, but they have been greater problems in closed countries, and in poorer countries. Even the United States and Britain, when they were first industrializing, struggled with problems of child labor and various forms of wage and employment discrimination. These problems tend to be more effectively alleviated by extending economic freedom, which is what openness to trade does, not denying it, which is what restrictions do.

A good book on the "human face" of globalization is In Defense of Globalization by Jagdish Bhagwati. It should be required reading for anyone considering opening their pieholes on the topic of trade and globalization.

It's actually going to be a fun week – I see two good articles on trade and globalization in this week's Economist, so you'll get to hear my thoughts on them.


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