Best of the Week
Most Popular
1. Stock Markets and the History Chart of the End of the World (With Presidential Cycles) - 28th Aug 20
2.Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook... AI Tech Stocks Buying Levels and Valuations Q3 2020 - 31st Aug 20
3.The Inflation Mega-trend is Going Hyper! - 11th Sep 20
4.Is this the End of Capitalism? - 13th Sep 20
5.What's Driving Gold, Silver and What's Next? - 3rd Sep 20
6.QE4EVER! - 9th Sep 20
7.Gold Price Trend Forecast Analysis - Part1 - 7th Sep 20
8.The Fed May “Cause” The Next Stock Market Crash - 3rd Sep 20
9.Bitcoin Price Crash - You Will be Suprised What Happens Next - 7th Sep 20
10.NVIDIA Stock Price Soars on RTX 3000 Cornering the GPU Market for next 2 years! - 3rd Sep 20
Last 7 days
Gold & Silver Begin New Advancing Cycle Phase - 6th May 21
Vaccine Economic Boom and Bust - 6th May 21
USDX, Gold Miners: The Lion and the Jackals - 6th May 21
What If You Turn Off Your PC During Windows Update? Stuck on Automatic Repair Nightmare! - 6th May 21
4 Insurance Policies You Should Consider Buying - 6th May 21
Fed Taper Smoke and Mirrors - 5th May 21
Global Economic Recovery 2021 and the Dark Legacies of Smoot-Hawley - 5th May 21
Utility Stocks Continue To Rally – Sending A Warning Signal Yet? - 5th May 21
ROIMAX Trading Platform Review - 5th May 21
Gas and Electricity Price Trends so far in 2021 for the United Kingdom - 5th May 21
Crypto Bubble Mania Free Money GPU Mining With NiceHash Continues... - 4th May 21
Stock Market SPX Short-term Correction - 4th May 21
Gold & Silver Wait Their Turn to Ride the Inflationary Wave - 4th May 21
Gold Can’t Wait to Fall – Even Without USDX’s Help - 4th May 21
Stock Market Investor Psychology: Here are 2 Rare Traits Now on Display - 4th May 21
Sheffield Peoples Referendum May 6th Local Elections 2021 - Vote for Committee Decision's or Dictatorship - 4th May 21
AlphaLive Brings Out Latest Trading App for Android - 4th May 21
India Covid-19 Apocalypse Heralds Catastrophe for Pakistan & Bangladesh, Covid in Italy August 2019! - 3rd May 21
Why Ryzen PBO Overclock is Better than ALL Core Under Volting - 5950x, 5900x, 5800x, 5600x Despite Benchmarks - 3rd May 21
MMT: Medieval Monetary Theory - 3rd May 21
Magical Flowering Budgies Bird of Paradise Indoor Grape Vine Flying Fun in VR 3D 180 UK - 3rd May 21
Last Chance to GET FREE Money Crypto Mining with Your Desktop PC - 2nd May 21
Will Powell Lull Gold Bulls to Sweet Sleep? - 2nd May 21
Stock Market Enough Consolidation Already! - 2nd May 21
Inflation or Deflation? (Not a silly question…) - 2nd May 21
What Are The Requirements For Applying For A Payday Loan Online? - 2nd May 21
How to Invest in HIGH RISK Tech Stocks for 2021 and Beyond - Part1 - 1st May 21
INDIA COVID APOCALYPSE - 1st May 21
Are Technicals Pointing to New Gold Price Rally? - 1st May 21
US Dollar Index: Subtle Changes, Remarkable Outcomes - 1st May 21
Stock Market Correction Time Window - 30th Apr 21
Stock Market "Fastest Jump Since 2007": How Leveraged Investors are Courting "Doom" - 30th Apr 21
Three Reasons Why Waiting for "Cheaper Silver" Doesn't Make Cents - 30th Apr 21
Want To Invest In US Real Estate Market But Don’t Have The Down Payment? - 30th Apr 21
King Zuckerberg Tech Companies to Set up their own Governments! - 29th Apr 21
Silver Price Enters Acceleration Phase - 29th Apr 21
Financial Stocks Sector Appears Ready To Run Higher - 29th Apr 21
Stock Market Leverage Reaches New All-Time Highs As The Excess Phase Rally Continues - 29th Apr 21
Get Ready for the Fourth U.S. Central Bank - 29th Apr 21
Gold Mining Stock: Were Upswings Just an Exhausting Sprint? - 29th Apr 21
AI Tech Stocks Lead the Bull Market Charge - 28th Apr 21
AMD Ryzen Overclocking Guide - 5900x, 5950x, 5600x PPT, TDC, EDC, How to Best Settings Beyond PBO - 28th Apr 21
Stocks Bear Market / Crash Indicator - 28th Apr 21
No Upsetting the Apple Cart in Stocks or Gold - 28th Apr 21
Is The Covaids Insanity Actually Getting Worse? - 28th Apr 21
Dogecoin to the Moon! The Signs are Everywhere, but few will Heed them - 28th Apr 21
SPX Indicators Flashing Stock Market Caution - 28th Apr 21
Gold Prices – Don’t Get Too Excited - 28th Apr 21
6 Challenges Contract Managers Face When Handling Contractual Agreements - 28th Apr 21

Market Oracle FREE Newsletter

How to Protect your Wealth by Investing in AI Tech Stocks

The Free Trade Theory of Comparative Advantage

Economics / Economic Theory Apr 07, 2011 - 06:46 AM GMT

By: Ian_Fletcher

Economics Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleYou can read about the free trade controversy for months and never hear about it. But in the minds of real economists, it’s there all the time, and it’s big. I’m talking about the so-called theory of comparative advantage, the theoretical lynchpin—in the view of free traders and protectionists alike—of the case for free trade. It has an unfortunate reputation for being too technically tricky for non-economists to understand, but I think this is a shame, because this myth tends to shut ordinary concerned citizens out of the debate. Therefore, I’d like to take a shot at explaining this theory.


The theory is ultimately wrong, for reasons I spent half a book discussing. And in a future article, I’ll explain why. But for now, let’s just get clear on what it says. That’s the price of admission for engaging in serious debate on the issue.

To understand comparative advantage, it is best to start with its simpler cousin: absolute advantage. The concept of absolute advantage simply says that if some foreign nation is a more efficient producer of some product than we are, then free trade will cause us to import that product from them, to the benefit of both nations. It benefits us because we get the product for less than it would have cost us to make it ourselves. It benefits the foreign nation because it gets a market for its goods. And it benefits the world economy as a whole because it causes production to come from the most efficient producer, maximizing world output.

Sounds good. Indeed, absolute advantage is a set of fairly obvious ideas. It is, in fact, the theory of international trade most people instinctively hold, without recourse to formal economics, and thus it explains a large part of public opinion on the subject. It sounds like a reassuringly direct application of basic capitalist principles. It is the theory of trade the great Adam Smith himself, founder of modern economics, believed in.

It is also false. Under free trade, America observably imports products of which we are the most efficient producer—which makes no sense by the standard of absolute advantage. This causes complaints like conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan’s below:

Ricardo’s theory...demands that more efficient producers in advanced countries give up industries to less efficient producers in less advanced nations...Are Chinese factories more efficient than U.S. factories? Of course not. (The Great Betrayal, p. 67.)

Buchanan is correct: this is precisely what Ricardo’s theory demands. It not only predicts that less efficient producers will sometimes win (observably true) but argues that this is good for us (the controversy). This is why we must analyze trade in terms of not absolute but comparative advantage. If we don’t, we will never obtain a theory that accurately describes what does happen in international trade, which is a prerequisite for our arguing about what should happen—or how to make it happen.

At bottom, the theory of comparative advantage simply says this:

Nations trade for the same reasons people do.

And the whole theory can be cracked open with one simple question:

Why don’t pro football players mow their own lawns?

Why should this even be a question? Because the average footballer can almost certainly mow his lawn more efficiently than the average professional lawn mower. The average footballer is, after all, presumably stronger and more agile than the presumably mediocre workforce attracted to a badly paid job like mowing lawns. (If we wanted to quantify his efficiency, we could measure it in acres per hour.)

Efficiency (also known as productivity) is always a matter of how much output we get from a given quantity of inputs, be these inputs hours of labor, pounds of flour, kilowatts of electricity, or whatever. Because our footballer is more efficient, in economic language he has absolute advantage at mowing lawns. Yet nobody finds it strange that he would “import” lawn-mowing services from a less efficient “producer.” Why? Obviously, because he has better things to do with his time.

This is the key to the whole thing. The theory of comparative advantage says that it is advantageous for America to import some goods simply in order to free up our workforce to produce more-valuable goods instead. We, as a nation, have “better things to do with our time” than produce these less valuable goods. And, just as with the football player and the lawn mower, it doesn’t matter whether we are more efficient at producing them, or the country we import them from is. As a result, it is sometimes advantageous for us to import goods from less efficient nations.

This logic doesn’t only apply to our time, that is our man-hours of labor, either. It also applies to our land, capital, technology, and every other resource used to produce goods. So the theory of comparative advantage says that if we could produce something more valuable with the resources we currently use to produce some product, then we should import that product, free up those resources, and produce that more valuable thing instead.

Economists call the resources we use to produce products “factors of production.” They call whatever we give up producing, in order to produce something else, our “opportunity cost.” The opposite of opportunity cost is “direct” cost, so while the direct cost of mowing a lawn is the hours of labor it takes, plus the gasoline, wear-and-tear on the machine, et cetera, the opportunity cost is the value of whatever else these things could have been producing instead.

Direct cost is a simple matter of efficiency, and is the same regardless of whatever else is going on in the world. Opportunity cost is a lot more complicated, because it depends on what other opportunities exist for using factors of production.

Other things being equal, direct cost and opportunity cost go up and down together, because if the time required to mow a lawn doubles, then twice as much time cannot then be spent doing something else. As a result, high efficiency tends to generate both low direct cost and low opportunity cost. If someone is such a skilled mower that they can mow the whole lawn in 15 minutes, then their opportunity cost of doing so will be low because there’s not much else they can do in 15 minutes.

The opportunity cost of producing something is always the next most valuable thing we could have produced instead. If either bread or rolls can be made from dough, and we choose to make bread, then rolls are our opportunity cost. If we choose to make rolls, then bread is. And if rolls are worth more than bread, then we incur a larger opportunity cost by making bread. It follows that the smaller the opportunity cost we incur, the less opportunity we are wasting, so the better we are exploiting the opportunities we have.

Therefore our best move is always to minimize our opportunity cost. This is where trade comes in.

Trade enables us to “import” bread (buy it in a store) so we can stop baking our own and bake rolls instead. In fact, trade enables us to do this for all the things we would otherwise have to make for ourselves. So if we have complete freedom to trade, we can systematically shrug off all our least valuable tasks and reallocate our time to our most valuable ones.

Similarly, nations can systematically shrink their least valuable industries and expand their most valuable ones. This benefits these nations and under global free trade, with every nation doing this, it benefits the entire world. The world economy, and every nation in it, become as productive as they can possibly be.

Or so goes the theory…

Here’s a real-world example: if America devoted hundreds of thousands of workers to making cheap plastic toys (we don’t; China does) then these workers could not produce anything else. In America, we (hopefully) have more-productive jobs for them to do, even if American industry could hypothetically grind out more plastic toys per man-hour of labor and ton of plastic than the Chinese. So we’re better off leaving this work to China and having our own workers do that more-productive work instead.

This all implies that under free trade, production of every product will automatically migrate to the nation that can produce it at the lowest opportunity cost—the nation that wastes the least opportunity by being in that line of business.

The theory of comparative advantage thus sees international trade as a vast interlocking system of tradeoffs, in which nations use the ability to import and export to shed opportunity costs and reshuffle their factors of production to their most valuable uses.

This all (supposedly!) happens automatically, because if the owners of some factor of production find a more valuable use for it, they will find it profitable to move it to that use. The natural drive for profit will steer all factors of production to their most valuable uses, and opportunities will never be wasted.

It follows that any policy other than free trade (supposedly!) just traps economies producing less-valuable output than they could have produced. It saddles them with higher opportunity costs—more opportunities thrown away—than they would otherwise incur.

In fact, when imports drive a nation out of an industry, this must (supposedly!) be good for that nation, as it means the nation must be allocating its factors of production to producing something more valuable instead. If it weren’t doing this, the logic of profit would never have driven its factors out of their former uses. In the language of the theory, the nation’s “revealed comparative advantage” must lie elsewhere, and it will now be better off producing according to its newly revealed comparative advantage.

Or so goes the theory, and it’s easy to see where it leads. Next time, I’ll tell you why it isn’t true.

Ian Fletcher is the author of the new book Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why (USBIC, $24.95)  He is an Adjunct Fellow at the San Francisco office of the U.S. Business and Industry Council, a Washington think tank founded in 1933.  He was previously an economist in private practice, mostly serving hedge funds and private equity firms. He may be contacted at ian.fletcher@usbic.net.

© 2011 Copyright  Ian Fletcher - All Rights Reserved

Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.


© 2005-2019 http://www.MarketOracle.co.uk - The Market Oracle is a FREE Daily Financial Markets Analysis & Forecasting online publication.


Post Comment

Only logged in users are allowed to post comments. Register/ Log in