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The Import of Exports

CAMBRIDGE – Should a country’s development strategy pay special attention to exports? After all, exports have nothing to do with satisfying their people’s basic needs, such as education, health care, housing, power, water, telecoms, security, the rule of law, and recreation. So why give precedence to satisfying the needs of distant foreign consumers?

That, in a nutshell, is what many opponents of free trade and economic globalization – as well as many on the right who believe that all industries should be treated equally – want to know. But there are no right answers to wrong questions. It is precisely because governments care about their own people that they should focus on exports.

To see this, consider what a market economy is all about. Some, including Pope Francis, would say that it is about greed – a system in which everybody cares only about herself.

But a market economy should be understood as a system in which we are supposed to earn our keep by doing things for other people; how much we earn depends on how others value what we do for them. The market economy forces us to be concerned about the needs of others, because it is their need that constitutes the source of our livelihood. In some sense, a market economy is a gift-exchange system; money merely tracks the value of the gifts we give one another.