Free Trade and Costly Love

The argument for free trade is an argument for welfare, but welfare defined exclusively in terms of money. The trouble is that the more we start to think of our welfare in terms of money, the more likely we are to regard spending time with friends or making love as an “opportunity cost.”

LONDON – The World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in Bali in December produced a modest package of encouragements to global trade. More broadly, the WTO’s multilateral approach has shown its worth by preventing a massive increase in trade barriers, unlike in 1929-1930, when protectionism helped deepen and broaden the Great Depression. But the main question – whether globalization is a good thing, and for whom – remains unanswered.

The essence of globalization – free trade – rests on the theory of comparative advantage, which views international trade as profitable even for a country that can produce every commodity more cheaply (in terms of labor or all resources) than any other country.

The textbook example given by the Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson is that of a town’s best lawyer who is also its best typist. Provided that he is better at law than at typing, he should specialize in law and leave his secretary to do the typing. That way, both of their earnings will be higher.

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