Why Free Trade Matters

Why Free Trade Matters
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 3]

7. Free Trade

The theoretical demonstration of the consequences of the protective tariff and of free trade is the keystone of classical economics. It is so clear, so obvious, so indisputable, that its opponents were unable to advance any arguments against it that could not be immediately refuted as completely mistaken and absurd.

Nevertheless, nowadays we find protective tariffs?indeed, often even outright prohibitions on imports?all over the world. Even in England, the mother country of free trade, protectionism is in the ascendancy today, The principle of national autarky wins new supporters with every day that passes. Even countries with only a few million inhabitants, like Hungary and Czechoslovakia, are attempting, by means of a high-tariff policy and prohibitions on imports, to make themselves independent of the rest of the world. The basic idea of the foreign trade policy of the United States is to impose on all goods produced abroad at lower costs import duties to the full amount of this difference. What renders the whole situation grotesque is the fact that all countries want to decrease their imports, but at the same time to increase their exports. The effect of these policies is to interfere with the international division of labor and thereby generally to lower the productivity of labor. The only reason this result has not become more noticeable is that the advances of the capitalist system have always been so far sufficient to outweigh it. However, there can be no doubt that everyone today would be richer if the protective tariff did not artificially drive production from more favorable to less favorable localities.

Under a system of completely free trade, capital and labor would be employed wherever conditions are most favorable for production. Other locations would be used as long as it was still possible to produce anywhere under more favorable conditions. To the extent to which, as a result of the development of the means of transportation, improvements in technology, and more thorough exploration of countries newly opened to commerce, it is discovered that there are sites more favorable for production than those currently being used, production shifts to these localities. Capital and labor tend to move from areas where conditions are less favorable for production to those in which they are more favorable.

But the migration of capital and labor presupposes not only complete freedom of trade, but also the complete absence of obstacles to their movement from one country to another. This was far from being the case at the time that the classical free-trade doctrine was first developed. A whole series of obstacles stood in the way of the free movement of both capital and labor. Because of ignorance of conditions, a general insecurity in regard to law and order, and a number of similar reasons, capitalists felt reluctant about investing in foreign countries. As for the workers, they found it impossible to leave their native land, not only because of their ignorance of foreign languages, but because of legal, religious, and other difficulties. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was, to be sure, generally true that capital and labor could move freely within each country, but obstacles stood in the way of their movement from one country to another. The sole justification for distinguishing in economic theory between domestic and foreign trade is to be found in the fact that in the case of the former there is free mobility of capital and labor, whereas this is not true in regard to the commerce between nations. Thus, the problem that the classical theory had to solve may be stated as follows: What are the effects of free trade in consumers’ goods between one country and another if the mobility of capital and labor from one to the other is restricted?

To this question Ricardo’s doctrine provided the answer. The branches of production distribute themselves among the individual countries in such a way that each country devotes its resources to those industries in which it possesses the greatest superiority over other countries. The mercantilists had feared that a country with unfavorable conditions for production would import more than it would export, so that it would ultimately find itself without any money; and they demanded that protective tariffs and prohibitions on imports be decreed in time to prevent such a deplorable situation from arising. The classical doctrine shows that these mercantilist fears were groundless. For even a country in which the conditions of production in every branch of industry are less favorable than they are in other countries need not fear that it will export less than it will import. The classical doctrine demonstrated, in a brilliant and incontrovertible way that has never been contested by anybody, that even countries with relatively favorable conditions of production must find it advantageous to import from countries with comparatively unfavorable conditions of production those commodities that they would, to be sure, be better fitted to produce, but not so much better fitted as they are to produce other commodities in whose production they then specialize.

Thus, what the classical theory of free trade says to the statesman is: There are countries with relatively favorable and others with relatively unfavorable natural conditions of production. In the absence of interference on the part of governments, the international division of labor will, of itself, result in every country’s finding its place in the world economy, no matter how its conditions of production compare with those of other countries. Of course, the countries with comparatively favorable conditions of production will be richer than the others, but this is a fact that cannot be altered by political measures in any case. It is simply the consequence of a difference in the natural factors of production.

This was the situation that confronted the older liberalism, and to this situation it responded with the classical doctrine of free trade. But since the days of Ricardo world conditions have changed considerably, and the problem that the free-trade doctrine had to face in the last sixty years before the outbreak of the World War was completely different from the one with which it bad to deal at the close of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century. For the nineteenth century partially eliminated the obstacles that, at its beginning, had stood in the way of the free mobility of capital and labor. In the second half of the nineteenth century it was far easier for a capitalist to invest his capital abroad than it had been in Ricardo’s day. Law and order were established on a considerably firmer foundation; knowledge of foreign countries, manners, and customs had spread; and the joint-stock company offered the possibility of dividing the risk of foreign enterprises among many persons and thereby reducing it. It would, of course, be an exaggeration to say that at the beginning of the twentieth century capital was as mobile in its passage from one country to another as it was within the territory of the country itself. Certain differences still existed, to be sure; yet the assumption that capital had to remain within the boundaries of each country was no longer valid. Nor was this any longer true of labor either. In the second half of the nineteenth century millions left Europe to find better opportunities for employment overseas.

In so far as the conditions presupposed by the classical doctrine of free trade, viz., the immobility of capital and labor, no longer existed, the distinction between the effects of free trade in domestic commerce and in foreign commerce likewise necessarily lost its validity. If capital and labor can move as freely between one country and another as they do within the confines of each, then there is no further justification for making a distinction between the effects of free trade in domestic commerce and in foreign commerce. For then what was said in regard to the former holds for the latter as well: the result of free trade is that only those locations are used for production in which the conditions for it are comparatively favorable, while those in which the conditions of production are comparatively unfavorable remain unused. Capital and labor flow from the countries with less favorable conditions of production toward those where the conditions of production are more favorable, or, more precisely, from the long-settled, thickly populated European countries toward America and Australia, as areas that offer more favorable conditions of production.

For the European nations that had at their disposal, besides the old areas of settlement in Europe, overseas territories suitable for colonization by Europeans, this meant nothing more than that they now settled a part of their population overseas. In England’s case, for example, some of her sons now lived in Canada, Australia, or South Africa. The emigrants who had left England could retain their English citizenship and nationality in their new homes. But for Germany the case was quite different. The German who emigrated landed in the territory of a foreign country and found himself among the members of a foreign nation. He became the citizen of a foreign state, and it was to be expected that after one, two, or at the most three generations, his attachment to the German people would be dissolved and the process of his assimilation as a member of a foreign nation would be completed. Germany was faced with the problem of whether it was to look on with indifference while a part of her capital and her people emigrated overseas.

One must not fall into the error of assuming that the problems of commercial policy that England and Germany had to face in the second half of the nineteenth century were the same. For England, it was a question of whether or not she ought to permit a number of her sons to emigrate to the dominions, and there was no reason to hinder their emigration in any way. For Germany, however, the problem was whether it ought to stand by quietly while her nationals emigrated to the British colonies, to South America, and to other countries, where it was to be expected that these emigrants, in the course of time, would give up their citizenship and nationality just as hundreds of thousands, indeed, millions, who had previously emigrated, had already done. Because it did not want this to happen, the German Empire, which during the sixties and seventies had been approaching ever more closely to a policy of free trade, now shifted, toward the end of the seventies, to one of protectionism by the imposition of import duties designed to shield German agriculture and industry against foreign competition. Under the protection of these tariffs German agriculture was able to some extent to bear East-European and overseas competition from farms operating on better land, and German industry could form cartels that kept the domestic price above the price on the world market, enabling it to use the profits thereby realized to undersell its competitors abroad.

But the ultimate goal that was aimed at in the return to protectionism could not be achieved. The higher living and production costs rose in Germany as a direct consequence of these protective tariffs, the more difficult its trade position necessarily became. To be sure, it was possible for Germany to make a mighty industrial upswing in the first three decades of the era of the new commercial policy. But this upswing would have occurred even in the absence of a protective tariff, for it was primarily the result of the introduction of new methods in the German iron and chemical industries, which enabled them to make better use of the country’s abundant natural resources.

Antiliberal policy, by abolishing the free mobility of labor in international trade and considerably restricting even the mobility of capital, has, to a certain extent, eliminated the difference that existed in the conditions of international trade between the beginning and the end of the nineteenth century and has reverted to those prevailing at the time the doctrine of free trade was first formulated. Once again capital and, above all, labor are hindered in their movements. Under the conditions existing today, unhampered trade in consumers’ goods could not give rise to any migratory movements. Once again, it would result in a state of affairs in which the individual peoples of the world would be engaged in those types and branches of production for which the relatively best conditions exist in their own countries.

But whatever may be the prerequisites for the development of international trade, protective tariffs can accomplish only one thing: to prevent production from being carried on where the natural and social conditions are most favorable for it and to cause it to be carried on instead where conditions are worse. The outcome of protectionism is, therefore, always a reduction in the productivity of human labor. The freetrader is far from denying that the evil that the nations of the world wish to combat by means of a policy of protectionism really is an evil. What he maintains is only that the means recommended by the imperialists and protectionists cannot eliminate that evil. He therefore proposes a different way. In order to create the indispensable conditions for a lasting peace, one of the features of the present international situation that the liberal wishes to change is the fact that emigrants from nations like Germany and Italy, which have been treated like stepchildren in the division of the world, must live in areas in which, because of the adoption of antiliberal policies, they are condemned to lose their nationality.

  • Jerry

    If one is to be consistant regarding protectionism, or anti free trade, means not trading with anyone, not even with your next door neighbor since to trade with one automatically excudes the other. Otherwise one places himself in a hypocritical situation. The same agument that applys to a country border must be applied to regional borders and reduced further to the city (town next door), to the busineses within a city, and still further to the man next to you. You are automatically favoring one over the other.

Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was one of the most notable economists and social philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of a long and highly productive life, developed an integrated, deduct­ive science of economics based on the fundamental axiom that in­dividual human beings act purposively to achieve desired goals. Even though his economic analysis itself was "value-free" — in the sense of being irrelevant to values held by economists — Mises concluded that the only viable economic policy for the human race was a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defense of person and property within its territorial area.

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