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Too Late to Compensate Free Trade’s Losers

CAMBRIDGE – It appears that a new consensus has taken hold these days among the world’s business and policy elites about how to address the anti-globalization backlash that populists such as Donald Trump have so ably exploited. Gone are the confident assertions that globalization benefits everyone: we must, the elites now concede, accept that globalization produces both winners and losers. But the correct response is not to halt or reverse globalization; it is to ensure that the losers are compensated.

The new consensus is stated succinctly by Nouriel Roubini: the backlash against globalization “can be contained and managed through policies that compensate workers for its collateral damage and costs,” he argues. “Only by enacting such policies will globalization’s losers begin to think that they may eventually join the ranks of its winners.”

This argument seems to make eminent sense, both economically and politically. Economists have long known that trade liberalization causes income redistribution and absolute losses for some groups, even as it enlarges a country’s overall economic pie. Therefore, trade deals unambiguously enhance national wellbeing only to the extent that winners compensate losers. Compensation also ensures support for trade openness from broader constituencies and should be good politics.

Prior to the welfare state, the tension between openness and redistribution was resolved either by large-scale emigration of workers or by re-imposing trade protection, especially in agriculture. With the rise of the welfare state, the constraint became less binding, allowing for more trade liberalization. Today the advanced countries that are the most exposed to the international economy are also those where safety nets and social insurance programs – welfare states – are the most extensive. Research in Europe has shown that losers from globalization within countries tend to favor more active social programs and labor-market interventions.