Wednesday, March 07, 2007

It's The Freedom, Stupid?

Sheldon Richman writes about Adam Smith's observation that "Nothing . . . can be more absurd than this whole doctrine of the balance of trade."
. . . . I've come away with a new appreciation of what the old Scotsman was saying. Concern about imports and exports really is ridiculous.

What is an export? What is an import? These words are defined in reference to political boundaries of only one kind: national boundaries. If there were no such boundaries, there would be no exports or imports. But political boundaries are just that. They are not economic boundaries. To the extent that they can, people go about their business as though those boundaries weren't there. People cross the Canadian-American and Mexican-American borders to transact business every day. If they give them a thought it is only because governments put up barriers patrolled my armed guards who make them wait in line. People learn early in life that they can gain immensely from trade, and with that understanding comes the insight that it doesn't much matter on which side of a Rand-McNally line your trading partner lives.

So the very concepts imports and exports are founded on an arbitrary construct that has little practical consequence for people's economic activities. Back in the 1980s, when neomercantilists feared Japan's economic success at selling us stuff (seems a little crazy now, no?), I used to ask what would happen to the trade deficit if Japan were made the 51st state. Obviously, the deficit would have disappeared because we don't reckon trade imbalances between states. Why not?

In reality, then, there are no imports and exports. There is only what I make and what everyone else makes. Few people would want to live just on what they themselves could make. Frederic Bastiat pointed out that each of us daily uses products we couldn't make in isolation in a thousand years. Talk about poor, solitary, nasty, brutish, and short! "What makes this phenomenon stranger still is that the same thing holds true for all men," Bastiat wrote. "Every one of the members of society has consumed a million times more than he could have produced; yet no one has robbed anyone else."

This is just another way of saying that the case for free trade is conceded the moment someone eschews self-sufficiency. After that, we're just haggling over the size of the trade area. But if free trade (read: division of labor) is good, then the bigger the free-trade area the better. Globalization should be the worldwide removal of all barriers to the exchange of goods and services -- rather than trade managed through state capitalism and multinational bureaucracies. Unilateral, unconditional free trade is the smartest policy.

Remember the political slogan "It's the economy, stupid?" Doesn't it seem like freedom's just another word for prosperity?

If you want to know why "made in China" makes no sense, then read the rest of Mr. Richman's essay.

No comments: