An unequivocal acceptance of free trade has been a central theme of mainstream macroeconomics for decades. It is argued that factor markets adjust over time to generate superior outcomes. Among all the tenets of the Washington Consensus, this alone continues largely intact.
But in recent years, as the dynamics unleashed by the emergence of China has played itself out, some influential voices, including those from the right, have started questioning the conventional wisdom. In fact, David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson have even claimed that import growth from China caused 2.4 million jobs in the US over a dozen years.
At a conceptual level, for the world as a whole, there is no doubt that free trade leads to better outcomes. But there are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.
1. The world is politically organized as countries and regions. The world as a whole matters little in political terms, and is largely an academic construct. When seen in terms of individual countries or even more so among regions, there is very little evidence to suggest that free trade leads to superior outcomes - increased output and more jobs - even in the aggregate. Labor market adjustments take time and a large share of those displaced end up with inferior jobs and lower lifetime incomes. And there is nothing to suggest that comparative advantage in certain sectors offsets the loss in output and jobs due to lower competitiveness in other tradeables.
2. Then there is the fairness argument. Even the most ardent free traders accept its adverse distributional consequences. But they rationalize this by saying that governments can enact policies to mitigate this by facilitating labor market adjustments (re-trainings and re-skilling etc) and through transfers by appropriating from the winners and giving to the losers. But here too, there is scarce evidence of such hopes materializing. In fact, given the reality of the political economy in developed or developing countries, especially in the present times, the winners are far more likely to resist and prevail over any attempts to appropriate a share of their gains. To paraphrase Machiavelli, the greed of the influential few is most certain to overcome the requirements of the powerless many! In other words, not only is there little evidence of re-training and transfers, political economy militates against its realization.
Given this, all arguments for unfettered free trade are essentially faith-based arguments. This assumes significance since India is in the process of negotiating free-trade agreements with many countries. Yes, we need to embrace free trade. But we should be aware of its consequences and negotiate hard to obtain adequate safeguards for those sectors most likely to be vulnerable to trade-induced disruptions. This has to be complemented with a re-skilling programs and robust enough social safety net that rehabilitates and cushions the losers.