I mentioned before that trade liberalization – the removal of trade barriers such as tariffs, subsidies and other distortions of international trade – is, on aggregate and in the medium term, a powerful mechanism for poverty reduction. I say “in the medium turn”, because some structural adjustment may be necessary, and “on aggregate” because some may lose while others gain.
The usual fears about trade liberalization – that it reduces government revenues necessary for redistribution, that it leads to labor competition, lower wages and higher unemployment rates, or that it raises prices in developing countries – are, in general and on aggregate, unfounded (an overview of the evidence is here). Of course, trade liberalization may cause local economic shocks, and there can be distributional effects: some people will benefit more than others, and some may even be worse of after liberalization, especially in the short term. But it’s the aggregate medium term effect on a country or an economy that counts.
This is similar to the positive effect of economic growth on poverty reduction:
The vast majority of the world’s poor live in the rural areas of these two countries [China and India]. Both countries achieved significant reductions in poverty during 1980–2000 when they grew rapidly. According to World Bank estimates, real GDP grew at an annual average rate of 10 percent in China and 6 percent in India during these two decades. No country in the world had as rapid growth as China, and fewer than ten countries exceeded the Indian growth rate. The effect on reduction in poverty in both countries was dramatic, entirely in keeping with the “Bhagwati hypothesis” of the early 1960’s that growth is a principal driver of poverty reduction. (source)
Not all of the poor will be automatically better of as a result of economic growth, and growth may widen income inequality or relative poverty while reducing absolute poverty. But on average and on aggregate, economic growth – like trade liberalization – reduces poverty. That’s not just a story of “trickle down” or “all boats rising on a rising tide”; economic growth also means that the government has more resources to fund welfare and redistribution. (Obviously, none of this implies that growth is always beneficial or that there isn’t room to make growth even more “pro-poor” than it already is).
Arguments in favor of trade liberalization
The interesting part of the argument is that the positive effect of trade liberalization on poverty reduction passes through enhanced economic growth: liberalization reduces poverty because it enhances growth.
[P]ractically no country that has been close to autarkic has managed to sustain a high growth performance over a sustained period. Furthermore, … if one classifies countries into globalizers and nonglobalizers by reference to their relative performance in raising the trade share in GNP during 1977–1997, the former group has shown higher growth rates… [T]he outward-orientation of the Far Eastern strategy … led to the Asian miracle. (source)
Free trade is one of the determinants of economic growth. Growth requires increased productivity, and that’s what free trade delivers. Free trade means more productivity because it means
- more specialization
- more use of comparative advantage
- better access to technology and knowledge
- better and cheaper intermediate goods (raw products etc.) and capital goods (machines etc.)
- benefits of scale
- and increased competition.
All these consequences of free trade have a positive effect on productivity and hence on growth. And that’s not just theory; there’s empirical proof. Reductions in trade barriers were almost always followed by significant increases in productivity (source).
And it’s not just productivity; trade liberalization has other effects as well. The removal of tariffs can reduces prices for consumers and hence reduce poverty. It’s often the case that goods consumed by poor people have a higher tariff tax than goods consumed by rich people:
In his research, [Edward Gresser, senior fellow and director of trade policy at the Progressive Policy Institute] found that the tariff rate on a cashmere sweater is 4 percent; the rate for one made of much cheaper acrylic is 32 percent. A silk brassiere has a tariff rate of less than 3 percent, but the rate on a polyester one is slightly less than 17 percent. The tariff rate on a snakeskin handbag is just over 5 percent but climbs to 16 percent for one made of canvas. Similar variations occur when it comes to household goods. Drinking glasses that cost more than $5 each have a tariff of 3 percent, while those that cost less than 30 cents each have a rate of 28.5 percent. A silk pillowcase has a rate of 4.5 percent; this goes up to nearly 15 percent for one made of polyester.
Overall, clothes and shoes contributed nearly $10 billion in tariff revenue in 2009, while higher-cost items including audiovisual equipment, computers and even cars added less than $2 billion. Gresser contends that the $10 billion is disproportionately borne by people who can’t afford to buy luxury goods. What’s more, when customers pay sales tax on these products, that amount is also higher than it would otherwise be thanks to the tariff that drives up the retail price. (source)
Hence, not only does free trade alleviate poverty, trade restrictions and protectionism actually aggravate poverty. Take also the example of restrictions on rice exports in rice-producing countries:
At first glance, this seems understandable, because a country may not wish to send valuable foodstuffs abroad in a time of need. Nonetheless, the longer-run incentives are counterproductive. (source)
When farmers can’t export, there’s little incentive for them to farm rice. Result: the shortages that were meant to be avoided.
Arguments against trade liberalization
However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the undisputed downsides of trade liberalization. The removal of subsidies can hurt certain producers and it can, especially in the short run, depress employment and wages in certain sectors. It can therefore reduce some people’s incomes and push them into poverty. Trade liberalization can destroy entire markets: it can force a country to abandon tomato production for example, because nonsubsidized local producers are no longer able to compete with increased import competition coming from countries with a comparative advantage. The local producers will lose their jobs and income. However, these same people may benefit in other areas: products which they consume may become cheaper. So, when assessing the impact of trade liberalization on poverty, one has to aggregate all the losses and gains in different areas, and that’s ultimately an empirical question that has to be investigated country by country. Overall, the evidence is that, on aggregate, the effect is probably positive.
There can be individual losers from liberalization, and even individual countries can lose: countries that depend on mineral resources, for example, can take the fast lane towards the resource curse when trade is liberalized. But it’s the global balance of poverty alleviation that determines the desirability and success of trade liberalization.
The claim that liberalization negatively affects government revenues because of decreasing income from tariff taxes, and hence diminishes the generosity of the welfare state, is also not well founded. First of all, liberalization also means reduced subsidies, which should improve governments’ fiscal situation. Secondly, trade volumes increase as tariffs are reduced, and hence the net effect of reducing tariffs doesn’t have to be falling revenues. And finally, even if revenues fall, the poor don’t necessarily have to suffer: it’s ultimately a political decision where to spend which types of government revenues. Priorities can change when revenues change.
Another possible disadvantage of free trade is a cultural one. The claim is that free trade means cultural imperialism: small cultures don’t have the resources to export their cultural products and risk being overwhelmed by, in particular, American culture. Hence, there may be a case for cultural protectionism, but this case doesn’t extrapolate to protectionism writ large.
Liberalization isn’t a magic bullet, neither for economic growth nor for poverty alleviation. Sustained growth and substantial long term poverty reduction require more than free trade. Conflict resolution, good governance, education etc. need to accompany liberalization. It’s no secret that we don’t yet fully understand all the determinants of growth and poverty reduction. The advantage of trade liberalization, compared to other possible pro-growth or pro-poor policies, is that it’s relatively easy to implement: it is – or should be – easier to abolish tariffs and other trade restrictions (especially if there’s an element of reciprocity in global negotiations) than to create a solid education system or a non-corrupt judiciary able to enforce market rules and property rights.
The evidence in favor of the pro-poor effects of trade liberalization is compelling, but we shouldn’t underestimate some measurement difficulties: the measurement of poverty, of trade liberalization and of the effect of the latter on the former is by definition imprecise. The concept of trade liberalization may also be too broad or too vague. And the specific outcomes of liberalization policies depend not only on the precise reforms being undertaken, but also on the context in which they are undertaken. The same measures will have different results in different economic environments. The extent of multilaterality also determines the effects.