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October 20, 2017

The Past and Future of Free Trade, or How Partisan Preferences Spread Foolishness

Writing about web page https://twitter.com/nickdearden75/status/919871698236829697

I woke up on October 16 to a learned debate on Twitter about economic history. Daniel Hannan, who is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, had posted this:

What made us the world's richest nation? We removed trade barriers and so put money into ordinary people's pockets.

In response, Nick Dearden, who is the director of Global Justice Now, a campaigning organization, replied:

No. We plundered & pillaged. We sold people by the millions. We forced China into opium addiction. We decimated Bengal's textile industry.

(At the time of writing, both of these tweets were well liked, with Dearden well ahead: Hannan 982, Dearden 1.9K.)

Maybe you've guessed: this dispute was not really about economic history. It's about Brexit. Hannan urges Britain to go it alone as a free-wheeling, free-trading nation state, as in the past; that, he maintains, is what made us rich then, and it will work for us again. Dearden maintains that we owe Britain's wealth to the world, from which we once stole it. I'm not sure what that implies for Brexit, but for sure he doesn't seem to like free trade.

Considered as economic history, which version is more plausible? Neither account would pass even a low bar, say, that of an undergraduate multiple choice test. But, of the two, I prefer Hannan's. Here's how that works:

Why Hannan would not pass: he is wrong to imply that free trade was the key factor. Britain's relative advantages can be dated at least back to the fourteenth century, long before free trade; in fact, long before foreign trade represented a substantial share of Britain's economic activities.

Why Hannan deserves some credit: he is right to suggest that in the nineteenth century free trade further promoted British productivity and prosperity. He is also correct to remind us, as many forget, that trade is primarily about wages and prices, and that the gains from trade stem from higher productivity in the jobs we have, not from more jobs.

Why Dearden would fail -- on every count. Plunder, pillage, and the slave trade have little or nothing to do with Britain's modern competitive advantages. These advantages stemmed from factors that came into play long before the eighteenth century. Even in the eighteenth century, Britain's foreign predations were not on a sufficient scale to explain the continued growth of the economy at home, for at that time the total of foreign transactions was not large enough relative to the size of the economy, and all profits on trade did not represent a significant share of British investment.

At home, the revenues from British colonies and plantation enriched a few, but they did not generate economic growth. Britain's industrial revolution was made by mill owners and ironmasters, who were not especially enriched by their entrepreneurship because competition continually drove down their prices and profits. Those enriched by the cotton trade were the many who gained from falling textile prices and cheap imported food.

That's at home; what about the rest of the world? The cotton trade did not only enrich Britain. It also enriched others. It did not, as Dearden claims, "decimate Bengal's textile industry." That was done by Indian mill owners. In India as in England, some lost but many gained. This is shown by the fact that, throughout India's so-called deindustrialization, both production and consumption of textiles rose decade by decade.

So . . . if Hannan had the better case for Britain to have embarked on free trade in the nineteenth century, does he have the stronger case for Britain to leave the EU in the twentiy-first? Absolutely not.

The gains from free trade in the nineteenth century arose from exchanging basic staple commodities: food and raw materials, textiles, and simple machinery. These goods could be described by simple standards, and contracting for them was largely free of regulation. Trade in the twenty-first century is radically different.

Today, trade in complex machinery and electronic devices relies on common standards for quality, safety, and networking. Trade in services, where there are the greatest unrealized gains, relies even more on common regulatory standards for consumer protection and contract enforcement. These things are not provided by the WTO, or by free trade, or by free trade agreements. They are provided by international regulatory harmonization, such as by the EU's Single Market.

If you want to import, you have to export. By leaving the Single Market, we throw up a trade barrier between ourselves and our largest, most competitive market.

So, to the extent that Hannan is correct on free trade, his is a powerful argument against Brexit.

More generally, the exchange between Hannan and Dearden illustrates how the desire to defend or attack prompts the opposing sides to oversimplify history and to spread half-truths and "alternative facts." Partisanship makes idiots of us all.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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