For those of us stuck in the middle of post-Brexit political chaos, one of the expressions that is being increasingly bandied about is that of ‘free trade’ agreements. Free trade with the Commonwealth, free trade with China or simply protecting free trade with the European Union – it all sounds a simple and easy way to ensure a booming economy.
All a country needs is to have lot’s of these free trade agreements and goods and services will be flying out of the country in no time, jobs, money and prosperity are bound to follow. Except that isn’t really the case and such an opinion represents a dramatic over-simplification of a subject which has divided economists for decades – international trade.
In fact it’s more than decades, try centuries and at least from the time of David Ricardo who suggested the way to maximise world output is a theory called Comparative advantage. He’s a man who deserves to be listened to – an economist who became fabulously wealthy! His theory basically suggested that each country specialised in the areas in which it had an advantage and let other countries do the same. Sounds great, but if you sign a completely open free trade agreement with another country who does have such an advantage then prepare to see that industry be completely destroyed in your country.
Economics and Politics often don’t sit well together, it would seem from an economics perspective that letting the British Steel industry die would be a sensible option however it won’t look that way to tens of thousands who rely on this industry to pay their mortgages.
Free trade will also rarely mean fair trade, if country A supports workers rights and welfare, and promotes high standards of health and safety – it’s goods are unlikely to be competitive in price if country B does’t protect workers and utilizes child labor. Free trade will lose jobs and income for country A because there is no level playing field.
In many developed countries there are even more costs to production which can often wipe out advantages from efficiency. Most Western countries now have strict rules on levels of pollution that can be produced in manufacturing – if you ignore these you can drastically reduce the cost of production too.
There are reasons why ‘free trade’ agreements take years to negotiate, it’s because they can equally be potentially disastrous to an economy just as they can be beneficial. They work best in similar economies using the same currency which is why the most successful example exists between the European countries however it’s evident even this isn’t a guarantee to economic success.
Technology, Economics Writer