The Economics and Politics of Trade
…I’m not a protectionist. For the sake of the world as a whole, I hope that we respond to the trouble with trade not by shutting trade down, but by doing things like strengthening the social safety net. But those who are worried about trade have a point, and deserve some respect.Greg Mankiw asks:
But what if those who are worried about trade are protectionists? Should we still respect them?Until Paul Krugman gives his own answer, I think we can presume that the answer is yes. Respecting protectionists doesn’t mean we are willing to give in to their protectionist demands, but it does mean that we appreciate their concerns and presumably that we are interested in finding some way of accommodating those concerns, short of actual protectionist policies.
It helps, I think, to separate the positive question from the normative question. The positive question is, “Who is helped by trade, and who is harmed?” The normative question, in the abstract, is, “How much weight should we give to the interests of the various parties that are helped and harmed by trade?” Twenty years ago, there was an easy answer to the first question: “Nearly everyone is helped in the long run, and in the short run, only people in a few specific industries are harmed.” That made the answer to the normative question irrelevant. Unless one wanted to give a ridiculously high weight to the short run interests of industries that were hurt by trade, the conclusion was always that trade was good, and protectionism was bad. And anyone who disagreed could be written off as either representing a special interest or misunderstanding the positive economics, thus not deserving our respect.
The answer to the positive question is no longer easy, and Prof. Krugman suggests that the answer now may be something like this: “Rich Americans and poor foreigners are helped, while typical Americans are harmed.” I think most American economists, including both Greg Mankiw and Paul Krugman, will agree with my answer to the normative question: “Since poor foreigners are much, much, much, much poorer than typical Americans, any reasonable notion of distributive justice, utilitarian optimization, or human charity requires that we give more weight to the interests of poor foreigners.” But that answer is unattractively convenient for American economists, since, whether or not they are personally rich, they fall into the functionally defined category of “rich Americans” that benefit from trade. As Archie Bunker once said, “It’s always good to be generous when it don’t cost you nothing.”
The ultimate answer may be even more convenient for Paul Krugman, because it justifies his prior political preferences. He advocates addressing the concerns of protectionists by means of (broadly speaking) redistributionist policies that benefit typical Americans (trade losers) at the expense of rich Americans (trade winners). That answer is convenient, but nonetheless, provided that Prof. Krugman can substantiate his positive conclusions, pretty convincing (though perhaps I’m not one to judge, since I tend to agree with his prior political preferences anyhow). Whatever ones initial preferences regarding equity-efficiency tradeoffs, a recognition of the politics of trade should shift them a bit to the equity side. Or, more precisely, if the marginal efficiency gains (and equity gains at the global level) from trade are first order and you are already at your domestic optimum for the equity-efficiency tradeoff, then, with the introduction of the political constraint, the envelope theorem requires that you revise that domestic optimum.