Who Competes with Who?

President Trump (and other protectionists) like to frame international trade as a context: the domestic nation is competing with foreign nations and that imports must necessarily harm and exports necessarily help.  Aside from the numerous logical and mathematical issues with this interpretation, it is economically incorrect from the perspective of competition.

International trade represents the exchange of goods and services across political borders by individuals.  More simply put, it involves buyers on one side of an arbitrary line and sellers on another.  The fact this is buyers and sellers matter for a simple reason: buyers and sellers do not compete with one another.  They cooperate.

Buyers compete against other buyers.  Sellers compete against other sellers.  Buyers and sellers do not compete with one another.  The seller must offer a price acceptable to the buyer.  The buyer must offer a price acceptable to the seller.  The two will cooperate to make the exchange happen (or else they go their separate ways and other buyers and sellers step in).  What this indicates for international trade is this: when foreign producers are harmed, either through tariffs or quotas, they are not the only ones harmed: their domestic customers are harmed as well.  When Trump mentions “punishing” foreign companies for having the gall to offer Americans the best possible deal, what he is actually talking about is punishing Americans by reducing their options and preventing their cooperation with other people.

If we are to use the (highly misleading) language of nations trading with one another, this means that international trade is not a competition but rather cooperation.  It is impossible for one nation to be losing at trade because there is no competition!  Buyers and sellers cooperate.  When two nations trade, they cooperate.

Trade is Not Zero-Sum

On this post on Cafe Hayek, Per Kurowski writes in the comments:

Trade deficits per se do not worry me as much as a wrongly structured trade deficit. If current trade conditions permit other countries better chances to develop 1st class robots and the smartest artificial intelligence than mine, then I do fret for the future of my grandchildren. Let us not forget the “Arsenal of Democracy”

Mr. Kurowski makes a common mistake regarding trade: trade is not zero-sum.  If other countries are developing 1st class robots and smarter artificial intelligence, it does not necessarily follow that the domestic nation is made worse off by such innovations.  Indeed, the domestic nation stands to gain from such innovations.  A wealthier nation has more to offer the world.  More to trade means more trade.  More trade fosters more growth for both parties.  Even if a nation loses an absolute advantage in robotics or AI or something (as Mr. Kurowski postulates), it still becomes wealthier because of the Law of Comparative Advantage.

Mr. Kurowski also seems to insinuate that such gains by trading partners would pose a threat to national security.  I’ve written on the “protectionism for national defense” argument before, but it bears repeating that trade fosters peace, not violence.  There are two main ways to get what one wants: through cooperation or coercion; through trade or violence.  When trade is encouraged, peaceful cooperation takes hold.  Goods and services can cross borders, making all better off.  Since this trade is mutually beneficial, both nations face higher costs of breaking off those ties.  Even if the two nations get wealthier and can afford more expensive military equipment, the costs of war will rise quicker and the benefits of war fall.  With rising costs and falling benefits, the likelihood of conflict drops (we have seen this pattern take hold over the past few decades as trade liberalized).

If Mr. Kurowski is concerned about the future of his grandchildren, then he should welcome deeper trade ties among nations and not be concerned about trade deficits.  This would mean a wealthier and more peaceful world.  A move to protectionism would mean a poorer and more violent world.

Cooperation, Coordination, and the Law

Markets, by definition, rely on cooperation and coordination.  Buyers must cooperate with sellers in order to exchange; the seller must offer something the buyer wants and the buyer must offer something the seller wants.  Only through this cooperation can a trade occur.

Likewise, buyers and sellers must coordinate.  The buyer must be in the same place as the seller*.  A coordinating agent (ie a middleman) may sometimes be used to bring buyers and sellers together (think, for example, a realtor that brings home buyers to the home seller).  Similar to cooperation, buyers and sellers must coordinate on what to exchange and what their expectations are.

Cooperation and coordination are vital to the market process.

Economic texts tend to focus primarily on the coordinating and cooperation aspects of the market process, as they rightfully should, but a key factor is left out of the equation; that factor is the law.

Law here refers to the “rules of the game.”  Law is both written and unwritten; it is the set of rules, customs, norms, etc that develop through people’s interactions with one another.  Law, while shaped by peoples’ interactions, also shapes those interactions.

Law provides a useful form of coordination: who can sell what, what/how promises should be kept, what remedies exist for lawbreaking, that sort of thing.  Without law, and especially property rights, the coordination necessary for the market process would break down.

Consider, for example, property rights.  Property rights are a form of law; they may be formal (in the case of a deed registered at a local governmental authority) or it may be informal.  Property rights allow the market process to occur by defining who can trade what.  In other words, who owns the right to the use of a piece of property.  Ultimately what is being traded in any situation is a bundle of property rights.  If these are not clearly defined, then folks cannot know how to trade.  There cannot be coordination nor cooperation in this case.

Clearly-defined property rights are important to market transactions, but no property right will always and everywhere be perfectly clear.  We live in a world of “incomplete contracts.”  Not all possible situations can be anticipated and to write and understand property rights that take into account all possible conflicts is both physically impossible and economically wasteful (marginal cost exceeds marginal benefit).  In these ambiguities is where law also helps the market process.  Law, preferably by drawing on established rules of adjudication and precedent, can resolve these conflicts and allow the market process to function better (this was one of the great insights of Ronald Coase).

Law, of course, can have its own problems.  Just like any institution (including the market), it can be abused.  But it is vital to the coordination and cooperation functions of the market process.  Without law, trade cannot exist.  Only war.

*This place need not be physical

The Rules of Free Trade are Simple

What follows is a letter I’ve written to the Wall Street Journal:

Greg Ip’s 31 May 2018 piece, “Lessons in How to do Protectionism Well,” is interesting to say the least.  However, there is a major way in which Mr. Ip errs.  he writes: “He has thus far been relatively easy on China, which even free traders agree is a serial violator of the rules of free trade…”

It is unclear what rules of free trade Mr. Ip seems to think China has violated.  The rules of free trade are simple: people are voluntarily able to exchange their property rights.  China, at least outside of the country, has not compelled anyone to buy from them.  All trade done with China, that is individuals buying from other individuals who just happen to be Chinese, is voluntary.  China has not violated the rules of free trade at all.  If China were forcing American consumers to buy Chinese products, then yes they’d be violating the rules and should subsequently be punished.  But offering Americans goods at low prices is not a violation as the exchange that occurs is still voluntary.


Jon Murphy

George Mason University

Who Are the Economic Experts?

Economists are considered the economic experts.  After all, we’re the ones with the PhDs, the fancy mathematics, the complex theories that purport to explain everything.

But the reality is quite different.  We are not the economic experts.  Indeed, a good education in economics inoculates one from thinking himself an expert and forces him to think himself more of an observer.

The real economic experts are everyone.

People understand how to act in their own best interests. Nothing about the market needs experts to guide it. People are not fools who require technocrats to tell them what they can and cannot buy.  The outcome of the market, the observed phenomena that are the market process, is nothing more than the results of people interacting with one another; human action but not human demand.  People are acting on information that they have and the signals they see.  They are the experts, not the economist or technocrat.

Protectionists disagree, however. They believe they know better than everyone else. They believe they know better than the Joes of the world. They believe they know better than people what is in their own best interest. So they seek to impose their will upon everyone else, the opinions, hopes, and dreams of the others be damned. “They are not educated,” the protectionist thinks. “They are not versed in the theorems and mathematical proofs that show that Joe is harming himself. If only he had a benevolent hand to guide him; to push him in the right direction (or tug on the leash, if necessary).”

Free marketers believe non-economists do indeed know more economics than the economists. That’s precisely why they argue for free markets; so people can exploit their knowledge and expertise to the best of their ability. The protectionists and socialists (but I repeat myself) disagree. They believe themselves to be far smarter than the Joes of the world and that the Joes are simply too stupid to act in their own behalf.

Markets are observed empirical phenomena, not a technocratic outcome.  The market process is not a theory per se but an actual outcome.  The theory is used to explain why that outcome occurs, but it is an outcome nonetheless.

Today’s Quote of the Day…

…comes from page 29 of “Modern Principles of Economics” (4th Edition) by my GMU professors Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen:

The most important tools in economics are supply, demand, and the idea of equilibrium.  Even if you understand little else, you may rightfully claim yourself economically literate if you understand these tools.  Fail to understand these tools and you will understand little else.

Amen to that.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

On Monday, I opened my inaugural lecture in my Econ 100 (Economics for the Citizen) class by showing this video:

The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a hobo’s Paradise.  Everything he wants is at his fingertips.  Lakes of whiskey and stew, lots of places to sleep, where they “hung the jerk that invented work.”  Truly a Heaven on Earth.

But the economic problem is that we don’t live on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.  We live in a world of scarce resources, that is a world where choices need to be made.  How does one decide?  How can one maximize his resources?  How do we interact with one another on this issue?  How do we develop rules and institutions that govern these interactions?  These are the questions that economists study.*

Economists spend most of our time repeatedly reminding people that resources are scarce.  Politicians like to pretend otherwise.  Scarcityists like to pretend otherwise.  But they are merely chasing a hobo’s dream.

*Note the subtle difference between these questions, which are positive in nature, and the normative questions of “how should resources be allocated” and “who should decide” that many pseudoeconomists like to think economics is.