Dani Rodrik. Free-Trade Blinders:
I began the class by asking students whether they would approve of my carrying out a particular magic experiment. I picked two volunteers, Nicholas and John, and told them that I was capable of making $200 disappear from Nicholas’s bank account – poof! – while adding $300 to John’s. This feat of social engineering would leave the class as a whole better off by $100. Would they allow me to carry out this magic trick?
Those who voted affirmatively were only a tiny minority. Many were uncertain. Even more opposed the change.
Let’s assume, I said next, that Nicholas and John own two small firms that compete with each other. Suppose that John got richer by $300 because he worked harder, saved and invested more, and created better products, driving Nicholas out of business and causing him a loss of $200. How many of the students now approved of the change? This time a vast majority did – in fact, everyone except Nicholas approved!
I posed other hypotheticals, now directly related to international trade. Suppose John had driven Nicholas out of business by importing higher-quality inputs from Germany? By outsourcing to China, where labor rights are not well protected? By hiring child workers in Indonesia? Support for the proposed change dropped with each one of these alternatives.
We would think differently if Gates and Buffett had enriched themselves not through perspiration and inspiration, but by cheating, breaking labor laws, ravaging the environment, or taking advantage of government subsidies abroad. If we do not condone redistribution that violates widely shared moral codes at home, why should we accept it just because it involves transactions across political borders?
Similarly, when we expect redistributive effects to even out in the long run, so that everyone eventually comes out ahead, we are more likely to overlook reshufflings of income. That is a key reason why we believe that technological progress should run its course, despite its short-run destructive effects on some. When, on the other hand, the forces of trade repeatedly hit the same people – less educated, blue-collar workers – we may feel less sanguine about globalization.
Too many economists are tone-deaf to such distinctions. They are prone to attribute concerns about globalization to crass protectionist motives or ignorance, even when there are genuine ethical issues at stake. By ignoring the fact that international trade sometimes – certainly not always – involves redistributive outcomes that we would consider problematic at home, they fail to engage the public debate properly. They also miss the opportunity to mount a more robust defense of trade when ethical concerns are less warranted.