Comparative Advantage and Free Trade

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 21st, 2012

Economics 101

Mercantilism benefited only Protected Industries which Profited Handsomely from Higher Consumer Prices  

The Age of Discovery ushered in the era of mercantilism.  An era of trade.  But protected trade.  Tariffs, quotas, protectionism, restrictions, subsidies, etc.  You name it they used it.  To favor their trade position and their domestic industries.  And to restrict that of everyone else.  For mercantilism was a zero-sum game.  You only did well if others did not.  A thought that still has traction today.  Especially in older, inefficient industries.  That cannot compete with international competition that provides better quality at lower prices.  Such as textiles.  Steel.  Automobiles.  The Americans protected these industries in the face of better foreign competition.  Which only hastened their decline.

A protected industry has no incentive to improve.  When protective tariffs raise prices of lower-priced and higher-quality imports consumers buy the inferior domestic goods.  Because the tariffs make the better goods more costly.  So when a business has a captive audience their only focus is in maintaining that protectionism giving them that advantage.  Not improving their quality.  Or improving their productivity to lower their prices.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  So prices continue to rise to pay for inefficient labor and management.  And quality continues to decline due to the lack of real competition forcing them to continually provide a better product.  By improving designs.  Production methods.  And making capital investments in new machinery and equipment.

This is the cost of protectionism.  Poorer quality and higher prices.  Because of the misguided belief in the zero-sum game of mercantilism.  There was a reason why mercantilism was abandoned for free trade.  Because free trade was better.  For consumers.  Giving them lower prices and higher quality.  Whereas mercantilism benefited only those protected industries which profited handsomely from those higher consumer prices.  And the government officials who granted those favorable protectionist policies.

The Consumer gets Lower Prices AND Higher Quality thanks to the Division of Labor, Specialization and Comparative Advantage

As civilization advanced so did the division of labor.  People began to specialize.  Instead of growing our own food, making our own tools, spinning our own pottery, etc., we did only one thing.  And did it well.  Then we traded the things we made for the things we didn’t make.  This division of labor created a middle class.  And this middle class would take their goods to market to trade with other middle class artisans.  At first bartering with each other.  Trading good for good.  Then they introduced a temporary storage of value into the economy.  Money.  Making those trades easier by reducing search times.  Trading your goods for money.  And your money for goods.  Making life a lot simpler at the market.

Let’s take a closer look at the division of labor.  Let’s consider two artisans.  A toolmaker.   And a potter.  Both are skilled craftspeople.  And can make an assortment of goods.  But each excels at one particular skill.  The toolmaker can make 10 plows a day.  But if he makes 2 pottery bowls he can only make 4 plows in that same day.  The potter can make 12 pottery bowls in a day.  But if he makes 3 plows he can only make 5 pottery bowls in that same day.  Each can make more of their specialty.  But when they try to make other things in addition to their specialty they can’t make as much of their specialty as before.  So there is a cost to the toolmaker to make pottery.  To make 2 bowls cost the toolmaker 6 plows.  And there is a cost to the potter to make tools.  To make 3 plows cost the potter 7 bowls.  So the economy as a whole is better off when the toolmaker and the potter focus all of their energies in their own specialty.  When they do we get 10 plows and 12 bowls in one day.  When they don’t we only get 7 plows and 7 bowls.

We call this economic principle comparative advantage.  Where we look at economic output.  Which is what matters.  The more we bring to market the better it is for consumers.  Because greater quantities mean lower prices.  And when these skilled craftspeople focus on their specialty they improve the overall quality of the goods they bring to market.  So the consumer gets lower prices AND higher quality.  Thanks to the division of labor.  Specialization.  And comparative advantage.

We will always Have Jobs regardless the Size of our Imports for Having a Job is the Only Way to Buy those Imported Goods

If you multiply this over and over again to represent all the individual economic exchanges throughout the world you see why free trade is better than the protectionist policies of mercantilism.  Because it provides consumers with greater economic output at lower prices and higher quality.  This is why nations practicing free trade have the highest standards of living.  Because their people can walk into large department stores and fill their carts with inexpensive, high quality goods on a moderate paycheck.  Which could never happen if the mercantilists had their way.

The old inefficient industries want tariffs to increase the costs of those goods we fill our shopping carts with.  Including the food we eat.  And the cars we drive.  They use lofty arguments about protecting American jobs.  But those protectionist policies destroy jobs by increasing costs for businesses throughout the supply chain.  Raising consumer prices everywhere.  Reducing the amount of things we can buy.  Meaning businesses can’t grow and create new jobs.  Or they have to cut back production and eliminate existing jobs.

There’s also a lot of talk about the balance of payments.  Which actually meant something during the days of the gold standard.  For any trade deficits had to be paid for with gold.  But we don’t have the gold standard anymore.  Governments everywhere abandoned it in favor of irresponsible government spending.  So we don’t have to pay for trade deficits with gold.  Most money today is just electronic entries in a computer.  International capital flows have never been greater.  There are currency markets where people actively trade the world’s currencies.  So trade deficits don’t mean the same thing they once did in the mercantile world.  Then there’s the argument that if all our manufacturing jobs go overseas there will be no jobs for Americans.  If we import everything and export nothing there will be jobs everywhere but here.  Sounds like a problem.  But can that happen?  Not unless we get those imports for free.  So we will always have jobs regardless the size of our imports.  For having a job is the only way to buy the imported goods in those department stores.

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