Margaret Scott

Free-Trade Blinders

Too many economists are prone to attribute concerns about globalization to crass protectionist motives or ignorance, even when genuine ethical issues are at stake. By ignoring the fact that international trade sometimes involves redistributive outcomes that we would consider problematic at home, they fail to engage the public debate properly.

CAMBRIDGE – I was recently invited by two Harvard colleagues to make a guest appearance in their course on globalization. “I have to tell you,” one of them warned me beforehand, “this is a pretty pro-globalization crowd.” In the very first meeting, he had asked the students how many of them preferred free trade to import restrictions; the response was more than 90%. And this was before the students had been instructed in the wonders of comparative advantage!

We know that when the same question is asked in real surveys with representative samples – not just Harvard students – the outcome is quite different. In the United States, respondents favor trade restrictions by a two-to-one margin. But the Harvard students’ response was not entirely surprising. Highly skilled and better-educated respondents tend to be considerably more pro-free trade than blue-collar workers are. Perhaps the Harvard students were simply voting with their own (future) wallets in mind.

Or maybe they did not understand how trade really works. After all, when I met with them, I posed the same question in a different guise, emphasizing the likely distributional effects of trade. This time, the free-trade consensus evaporated – even more rapidly than I had anticipated.

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