Not to be confused with Free market or Fair trade.
Free trade is a free market policy followed by some international markets in which countries' governments do not restrict imports from, or exports to, other countries. In government, free trade is predominately advocated by political parties that hold right-wing economic positions, while economically left-wing political parties generally support protectionism.
Most nations are today members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) multilateral trade agreements. Free trade is additionally exemplified by the European Economic Area and the Mercosur, which have established open markets. However, most governments still impose some protectionist policies that are intended to support local employment, such as applying tariffs to imports or subsidies to exports. Governments may also restrict free trade to limit exports of natural resources. Other barriers that may hinder trade include import quotas, taxes, and non-tariff barriers, such as regulatory legislation.
There is a broad consensus among economists that protectionism has a negative effect on economic growth and economic welfare, while free trade and the reduction of trade barriers to trade has a positive effect on economic growth. However, liberalization of trade can cause significant and unequally distributed losses, and the economic dislocation of workers in import-competing sectors.
Features of free trade
Free trade policies generally promote the following features:
- Trade of goods without taxes (including tariffs) or other trade barriers (e.g., quotas on imports or subsidies for producers)
- Trade in services without taxes or other trade barriers
- The absence of "trade-distorting" policies (such as taxes, subsidies, regulations, or laws) that give some firms, households, or factors of production an advantage over others
- Unregulated access to markets
- Unregulated access to market information
- Inability of firms to distort markets through government-imposed monopoly or oligopoly power
- Trade agreements which encourage free trade.
Economics of free trade
Further information: Supply and demand
Two simple ways to understand the proposed benefits of free trade are through David Ricardo's theory of comparative advantage and by analyzing the impact of a tariff or import quota. An economic analysis using the law of supply and demand and the economic effects of a tax can be used to show the theoretical benefits and disadvantages of free trade.
Most economists would recommend that even developing nations should set their tariff rates quite low, but the economist Ha-Joon Chang, a proponent of industrial policy, believes higher levels may be justified in developing nations because the productivity gap between them and developed nations today is much higher than what developed nations faced when they were at a similar level of technological development. Underdeveloped nations today, Chang believes, are weak players in a much more competitive system. Counterarguments to Chang's point of view are that the developing countries are able to adopt technologies from abroad, whereas developed nations had to create new technologies themselves, and that developing countries can sell to export markets far richer than any that existed in the 19th century.
If the chief justification for a tariff is to stimulate infant industries, it must be high enough to allow domestic manufactured goods to compete with imported goods in order to be successful. This theory, known as import substitution industrialization, is largely considered ineffective for currently developing nations.
The economics of tariffs
The chart at the right analyzes the effect of the imposition of an import tariff on some imaginary good. Prior to the tariff, the price of the good in the world market (and hence in the domestic market) is Pworld. The tariff increases the domestic price to Ptariff. The higher price causes domestic production to increase from QS1 to QS2 and causes domestic consumption to decline from QC1 to QC2.
This has three main effects on societal welfare. Consumers are made worse off because the consumer surplus (green region) becomes smaller. Producers are better off because the producer surplus (yellow region) is made larger. The government also has additional tax revenue (blue region). However, the loss to consumers is greater than the gains by producers and the government. The magnitude of this societal loss is shown by the two pink triangles. Removing the tariff and having free trade would be a net gain for society.
An almost identical analysis of this tariff from the perspective of a net producing country yields parallel results. From that country's perspective, the tariff leaves producers worse off and consumers better off, but the net loss to producers is larger than the benefit to consumers (there is no tax revenue in this case because the country being analyzed is not collecting the tariff). Under similar analysis, export tariffs, import quotas, and export quotas all yield nearly identical results.
Sometimes consumers are better off and producers worse off, and sometimes consumers are worse off and producers are better off, but the imposition of trade restrictions causes a net loss to society because the losses from trade restrictions are larger than the gains from trade restrictions. Free trade creates winners and losers, but theory and empirical evidence show that the size of the winnings from free trade are larger than the losses.
According to mainstream economic theory, the selective application of free trade agreements to some countries and tariffs on others can lead to economic inefficiency through the process of trade diversion. It is economically efficient for a good to be produced by the country which is the lowest cost producer, but this does not always take place if a high cost producer has a free trade agreement while the low cost producer faces a high tariff. Applying free trade to the high cost producer (and not the low cost producer as well) can lead to trade diversion and a net economic loss. This is why many economists place such high importance on negotiations for global tariff reductions, such as the Doha Round.
Opinion of economists
The literature analysing the economics of free trade is extremely rich with extensive work having been done on the theoretical and empirical effects. Though it creates winners and losers, the broad consensus among economists is that free trade is a large and unambiguous net gain for society. In a 2006 survey of American economists (83 responders), "87.5% agree that the U.S. should eliminate remaining tariffs and other barriers to trade" and "90.1% disagree with the suggestion that the U.S. should restrict employers from outsourcing work to foreign countries."
Quoting Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, "Few propositions command as much consensus among professional economists as that open world trade increases economic growth and raises living standards." In a survey of leading economists, none disagreed with the notion that "freer trade improves productive efficiency and offers consumers better choices, and in the long run these gains are much larger than any effects on employment."
Most economists would agree that although increasing returns to scale might mean that certain industry could settle in a geographical area without any strong economic reason derived from comparative advantage, this is not a reason to argue against free trade because the absolute level of output enjoyed by both "winner" and "loser" will increase with the "winner" gaining more than the "loser" but both gaining more than before in an absolute level.
See also: Timeline of international trade
Further information: Anti-Corn Law League
The notion of a free trade system encompassing multiple sovereign states originated in a rudimentary form in 16th century Imperial Spain. American juristArthur Nussbaum noted that Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria was "the first to set forth the notions (though not the terms) of freedom of commerce and freedom of the seas." Vitoria made the case under principles of jus gentium. However, it was two early British economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo who later developed the idea of free trade into its modern and recognizable form.
Economists who advocated free trade believed trade was the reason why certain civilizations prospered economically. Adam Smith, for example, pointed to increased trading as being the reason for the flourishing of not just Mediterranean cultures such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but also of Bengal (East India) and China. The great prosperity of the Netherlands after throwing off Spanish Imperial rule and pursuing a policy of free trade made the free trade/mercantilist dispute the most important question in economics for centuries. Free trade policies have battled with mercantilist, protectionist, isolationist, communist, populist, and other policies over the centuries.
The Ottoman Empire had liberal free trade policies by the 18th century, with origins in capitulations of the Ottoman Empire
Free Trade? Essay
672 Words3 Pages
In an economic age in which speedy transactions of imports and exports are essential, is free trade a necessity for aiding worldwide economic development? At least John F. Kennedy thought so, he being the initiator of removing tariffs and other limitations on U.S. imports. His hypothesis was that by doing that, other nations would follow America’s example and leadership. However, that never happened because the other nations were more concerned with their own problems. Even today, the United States continues to support free trade, an example being NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement). The problem is that America’s generosity has caused the foreign industry to take over the U.S. marketplace. This unfortunately has resulted in high…show more content…
It’s simply not feasible for the U.S. apparel industry to compete with the extremely low production costs in Third World countries. Also, another example of an industry hurt by free trade is the lumber industry. Even though our country possesses the largest supply of timber resources, the United States is the largest importer of wood products in the world. The reason: imported wood is less expensive, especially from Canada. Other examples of industries that have responded negatively to free trade are the U.S. textile, petrochemical, fishing, and auto industries. The temptation for consumers to buy cheaper foreign goods has only slowed production in U.S. industries and has caused unemployment levels to skyrocket. America needs to become less generous, more independent, and definitely more self-sufficient. Free trade policies need to be discontinued if that it is to be accomplished.
The liberal viewpoint, however, is somewhat different. In a world of ever-increasing global economic interdependence, the United States should accept the responsibility of leadership towards the approaching 21st Century by promoting free trade. We need to do so in such a way that builds and matures the economies of other countries. As technology continues to advance in areas such as computers, medicine, and communication, we need to prioritize the spreading of these advancements across the world in hopes for reaching worldwide economic stability and unity. Free trade is