Economists fail to appreciate sufficiently that globalization often runs into a procedural fairness roadblock.
Imagine some change in the economy leaves Tom $3 richer and Jerry $2 poorer, and I ask you whether you approve of this change. Few economists, regardless of their political and philosophical orientation, would be able to give a straight answer without asking for more information. Is Tom richer or poorer than Jerry to begin with, and by how much? What are their respective needs and capabilities? And what exactly is the nature of the shock that created this redistribution of income? It would be one thing if Tom got richer (and made Jerry poorer) through actions that we would consider unethical or immoral; it would be another if this was the result of Tom’s hard work and Jerry’s laziness. In other words, most of us would care about the manner in which the distributional change occurred--i.e., about procedural fairness. The fact that the shock created a net gain of $1 is not enough to conclude that it is a change for the better.
Yet when we teach comparative advantage and explain the gains from trade, we typically overlook this important conclusion. We expect our students to focus on the net gain triangles and disregard the rectangles of redistribution. In particular, we do not ask whether the trade opportunity involves an exchange that most people would consider unacceptable if it took place at home. So it is immaterial to our story if the gains from trade are created, say, by a company shutting down its factory at home and setting up a new one abroad using child labor. (By the way, I chose $3 and $2 in my example as these values are commensurate with the relative magnitudes that come out of trade models under reasonable elasticities.)
The thought experiment clarifies, I think, why the archetypal man on the street reacts differently to trade-induced changes in distribution than to technology-induced changes (i.e., to technological progress). Both increase the size of the economic pie, while often causing large income transfers. But a redistribution that takes place because home firms are undercut by competitors who employ deplorable labor practices, use production methods that are harmful to the environment, or enjoy government support is procedurally different than one that takes place because an innovator has come up with a better product through hard work or ingenuity. Trade and technological progress can have very different implications for procedural fairness. This is a point that most people instinctively grasp, but economists often miss. (Notice that even in the case of technology, we have significant restrictions on what is allowable—c.f. human-subject review requirements—and wide-ranging debates about the acceptability of things like stem-cell research.)