The Causes of Poverty (54): Lack of Trade Liberalization

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.

Read more on the topic here and here. More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (21): And Economic (In)Efficiency

Standard economic theory suggests that these problems created by income inequality are a necessary price to pay for economic efficiency: unequal rewards – however unpleasant they are and whatever consequences they have – incite those with talents, skill and perseverance to innovate and be productive. Ultimately, this serves the welfare of the whole of society. Reducing inequality means taking away incentives for doing well, and results in economic inefficiency.

Sam Bowles has argued that the opposite is true:

Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources … in a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive.

Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor”. In a 2007 paper on the subject, he and co-author Arjun Jayadev, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, make an astonishing claim: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.

The job descriptions of guard labor range from “imposing work discipline”—think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from slacking off online—to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart.

The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it requires, Bowles finds. This holds true among US states, with relatively unequal states like New Mexico employing a greater share of guard labor than relatively egalitarian states like Wisconsin.

The problem, Bowles argues, is that too much guard labor sustains “illegitimate inequalities,” creating a drag on the economy. All of the people in guard labor jobs could be doing something more productive with their time—perhaps starting their own businesses or helping to reduce the US trade deficit with China. (source)

I must say I’m not entirely convinced. Income inequality creates a lot of problems, but economic inefficiency isn’t the most important one. Justifications for the fight against inequality based on efficiency look a lot less promising than justifications based on justice and fairness.

Income Inequality (18): No Such Thing – Good Thing – Necessary Evil – Gone Thing?

Attitudes towards income inequality in the U.S. differ widely.

  • There are those who deny that there is any, or better that there is enough to be worried about (see here for an example, or here).
  • Others say that it’s a good thing, and that there should be more of it. People are very different in their talents and work ethic, and rewarding the highly productive and creative ones for their efforts – which is only “fair” – automatically results in income inequality, because the unproductive and uncreative will not be rewarded, or less generously.
  • And then there are those who believe income inequality is a necessary evil. They don’t particularly like huge differences in rewards for activities which are, after all, often hardly comparable in any quantitive sense (is it so much more worthwhile to invest your efforts and creativity in the development of the iPhone than in the education of your children?). But they do believe that financial rewards stimulate productivity, and that higher rewards stimulate more. And increased productivity ultimately benefits us all, even those who are worse off and on the wrong side of the income inequality. (This is a version of “trickle down” economics).
  • Still others think that income inequality isn’t a problem any longer, given the effect of the recession on high earners.

Note: these 4 views aren’t necessarily incompatible. One and the same person can, as I see it, hold at least 3 of them at the same time. (E.g. you can believe that there isn’t much inequality, that what is left will soon be gone, and that you hope it will be back one day).

I think only the third view has some relation to the truth. Regarding the first view:

The basic conclusion of this data, that the nation [the U.S.] suffers from extreme and growing income inequality, is essentially irrefutable. Bruce Judson (source)

Regarding the second view: I object to it not because I don’t want to reward people or because I think justice has nothing to do with merit. On the contrary. I object to it because it assumes that different people and different activities can be placed on a single scale of merit and reward. It’s impossible to compare activities and say that one deserves a $10.000 per year reward (i.e. income) and another activity, compared to this first, is 10 times more deserving and hence deserves a $100.000 per year reward. Merit isn’t just a financial or quantitative thing, and hence it cannot – at least not exclusively – justify income inequality. Moreover, the income inequality that we see in the real world has little or nothing to do with merit. Most people aren’t paid according to any definition of merit. In the best case, they are paid because of their talents, which isn’t anything anyone deserves. In all other cases – and in the large majority of cases – people’s pay or income is determined by factors such as luck, family, networks, playing on the stock exchange etc., and none of these things are even marginally related to merit. In a society that rewards people for their creativity and productivity, you expect to see high levels of social mobility, and that’s precisely what you don’t see in the U.S.

Regarding the third view, I do believe that it is essentially correct, but it obfuscates many of the problems caused by income inequality. Hence, even if economic efficiency doesn’t justify efforts to limit income inequality, other things do.

The fourth view would seem to make sense intuitively. A lot of the income of the very wealthy comes from the stock markets, and the recession has pushed these markets down.

Professor Saez concludes that “the most likely outcome is that income concentration will fall in 2008 and 2009.” But, he follows this conclusion by stating that in the absence of significant policy actions such declines will be temporary: “Based on the US historical record, falls in income concentration due to recessions are temporary unless drastic policy changes, such as financial regulation or significantly more progressive taxation, are implemented and prevent income concentration from bouncing back. Such policy changes took place after the Great Depression during the New Deal and permanently reduced income concentration till the 1970s. In contrast, recent downturns, such as the 2001 recession, lead to only very temporary drops in income concentration.” Bruce Judson (source)

Moreover, the poor are also suffering as a result of the recession, not in the same absolute measures as the rich, but that is because they have less to lose in the first place. However, what they do lose as a result of the recession is for them relatively more important.

Recent data show that income inequality hasn’t actually decreased in 2008. Maybe in 2009… The recession only got started late in 2008.