Once in a while you come across a paper that makes you nod in agreement and go "yes!" with every sentence you read. Robert Driskill's Deconstructing the Argument for Free Trade is such a paper. Driskill is a distinguished economist who knows the theory of comparative advantage as well as anyone else. And his argument is not against trade per se, but about the manner in which economists present their arguments in public and in their textbooks. His main argument is that the standard renditions
gloss over a key issue the resolution of which is anything but obvious: What does it mean for a change in economic circumstances to be "good for the nation as a whole", even when some members of that nation are hurt by the change?
In other words, instead of sticking to what they are good at--analyzing trade-offs--economists typically engage in amateur normative political theorizing about what is good for society.
Driskill also makes a more fundamental point:
Consider a scene in the movie Dead Poets Society, in which the all-boys-school poetry teacher portrayed by the actor Robin Williams asks his students: What is the purpose of language? They predictably answered: to communicate. Their teacher then corrected them: the purpose of language, he claimed, is to "woo women!"
Of course, in some contexts, wooing women is a worthy goal. But scientific writing about policy issues shouldn't be like writing poetry. Unfortunately, most economic writing on the welfare implications of trade are not a balanced weighing of the evidence or a critical evaluation of the pros and cons of arguments, but rather are more akin to a zealous prosecutor's advocacy of a point of view. As such, this writing is designed to persuade rather than to give the
reader the information needed to form an educated point of view.
My point is not that the economics profession is not on the side of angels in the policy debate over trade liberalization--although I will argue that a more careful argument should lead to a more nuanced view--but that the argument is poorly made. This reflects negatively on the credibility of the economics profession as a whole: critical thinkers might believe all economic arguments are as poorly supported as is the one in support of free trade; others might believe economists are mere propagandists and handmaidens in service of some philosophical or political goal. Furthermore, it obscures some key ideas that should be part of a persuasive argument in support of free trade. And finally, it has confused many people into false beliefs about what economic analysis really says about the effects of international trade.
A pervasive such false belief, for example, is that trade necessarily benefits more people than it hurts.
Driskill illustrates his arguments by drawing on the writings of a range of economists, from Deirdre McCloskey to Paul Krugman. You must read this paper if you are an economist (or keep their company).