Ever since Adam Smith demonstrated in The Wealth of Nations (1776) that individuals would be better off if they specialize, instead of trying to be economically self-sufficient, countries across the world have tried to apply the same principle to international trade. It is argued that all countries would be better off if they exchange the products and services that they are relatively good at producing for those things that other countries are relatively better at producing. David Ricardo (1772-1823), British economist and businessman, through his theory of Comparative Advantage went on to "prove" that it can be beneficial for two countries to trade, even if one of them is able to produce each item more cheaply than the other.
The colonialist powers, particularly Britain, had realized the benefits of international trade after its industrial revolution although it is highly debatable whether such trade was beneficial for the colonies as well. In the last two decades, international monetary institutions such as IMF and trade organizations, particularly the Word Trade Organization (WTO) have been at the forefront for promoting free international trade. Unrestricted international trade has been touted as the panacea for all economic ills and an agent of development. The results of international trade have, however, been mixed. While supporters of free trade point to several success stories such as China, others point to the growing inequality, economic shocks such as the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997, and the increasing poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa as "fruits" of increased international trade (also known as globalization). In this paper I shall examine the pros and cons of international trade in order to determine whether increased international trade is beneficial or detrimental for our world. I shall also attempt to analyze how the existing problems in international trade can be overcome so that a greater cross-section of the global population starts to benefit from increased trade.
Reasons Why Increased International Trade is Beneficial
Apart from Adam Smith's theory of specialization and David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage, which enable the countries to devote their natural, human, industrial, and financial resources to their best uses, there are other reasons why increased international trade is supposed to be beneficial. For example, open markets and increased international trade gives people around the world more freedom of choice, which fulfills a basic human requirement of independence and freedom. Moreover, exposure to international markets is a strong stimulant for improvement in efficiency and transfer of technology including better management techniques to the less developed countries. Export-oriented jobs tend to pay more; thus increasing the general living standards of people, while increase in living standards in less developed countries create markets for the goods of the developed countries. All these factors combined, at least in theory, should prove beneficial to all.
Growing International Trade
Unprecedented growth and development in communications and Information Technology and in the last few decades have brought the people of the world closer than ever before. This "information revolution" has coincided with the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the promotion of market economy in China. Increased international trade in such an environment was, perhaps, inevitable. As a result, the volume of world trade has expanded to over $7 trillion annually. This translates into a 16-fold increase in world-wide trade since 1950.
Benefits of Increased International Trade
Supporters of increased international trade attribute such increased trade to a six-fold rise in Global GDP during the corresponding period. (Nordstrom and Vaughan, 1999). Moreover, in the quarter century between 1975 and 2000, the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has grown from $14 billion to $350 billion a year. According to the proponents of free trade and supporters of the "trickle down" economic theory, such increases have resulted in a significant reduction in poverty around the world during the last fifty years.
Growth in Countries that Adopted Free-Trade Policies
Several studies extol the virtues of free international trade which tell us that free trade shifts a country's resources into those goods and services in which its workers are most productive. According to one study reported on by Daniel Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation reveals that, during the 1970s and 1980s, developing open economies (those with relatively free trade), such as Chile and South Korea, grew on average by 4.5%, while closed economies (those with restrictive trade policies), such as India and Cuba, grew by only 0.7%. Another statistical study, based on a review of 123 nations, found that every percentage-point increase in total imports and exports leads to a 0.34% increase in per capita income (Vogel, 2000)
Proponents of free international trade point to the example of China which embarked on a path of trade liberalization in 1978 and in the next twenty years its imports and exports grew from $21 billion to $324 billion. During this same period, the country's per capita income increased by more than 8% per year. In the same period, India's growth rate, which continued to follow protectionist policies, high tariffs and restrictions on foreign investment was very sluggish and only began to improve after it adopted economic liberalization policy in the second half of the 1990s. (Ibid.)
Example of the United States
The benefits of free-trade are most vividly reflected in the economic success of the United States. Soon after its establishment in 1789, the U.S. Constitution prohibited states from restricting trade with other states. This one act alone, helped to create a large and efficient domestic market that soon made the United States one of the richest economies in the world. The secret of its success lies in the application of free trade. All the states in the U.S. are not self sufficient in everything. Some of them which possess favorable weather conditions and rich soil produce the bulk of food. Others are more efficient in producing industrial goods. All of them benefit by importing and trading among themselves without any trade barriers. The same rule of "free trade" applies for trade between countries and all countries which participate in such trade can benefit economically just as the U.S. states have benefited by trading among themselves.
More recently, the unprecedented growth in the U.S. economy during the 1990s can also attributed to increased international trade and globalization as between 1980 and 1998, U.S. exports increased from $272 billion to $934 billion, and its imports grew from $292 billion to $1,100 billion. (Ibid.)
Opponents of the free trade Laissez Faire policies and the trickle down economic theory vehemently oppose these "globalization" policies as is evident in the widespread demonstrations at every WTO meeting. The opponents of WTO's free trade policies assert that it unfairly favors corporations at the expense of consumers, workers, and the environment. They also argue that these policies are heavily tilted against the poorest sections of the world's population and have contributed in increasing poverty and inequality.
Policies Based on Corporate Interests
According to such anti-globalization and free trade theorists, the policy making in organizations such as the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD
is dominated by corporate interests and adheres to a neo-liberal, free-trade agenda. (Moore, 1999, Part I) These centralized bureaucracies are mostly manned by private bankers and corporate employees who watch out for the interests of the elite. In a post-communist world, any opposition to the free market, unregulated laissez faire economy is derided and dismissed. The WTO wields great authority through free-trade treaties; the IMF wields similar power by attaching conditions to the loans which it grants, while the OECD serves as a global elite think-tank. A combination of the three organizations has become an all-powerful official world government at the expense of the sovereignty of individual governments. (Ibid.)
Removing the Guiding Hand
The nineteenth century saw the unfettered adoption of Adam Smith's laissez faire economics minus the "guiding hand" by the United States and most other western countries particularly Britain. Information technology and communications technology was not as well developed as they are today to result in widespread international trade. The result, however, was the era of the "robber barons," naked exploitation of workers by the industrialists, and repeated "boom and bust" cycles. The severe global economic depression of the 1930s was the logical outcome of runaway capitalism without the necessary regulations in place. This followed a period of greater government controls and social security programs, which lasted until the 1980s. In this period, the Bretton Wood institutions provided the "guiding hand" for the global economy. Under pressure from the powerful multi-national corporations (MNCs), the "guiding hand" started to weaken in the 1970s. President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard, floated the exchange rates and control of international finance shifted from elected governments to private banks, investors, and speculators. (Moore, 1999, Part I)
Margaret Thatcher's policies in Great Britain and President Reagan's Reaganomics in the U.S., accelerated a reversal to Laissez faire policies of the 19th century. The difference was that this time the reach of the Free…