Why they’re wrong – Globalisation’s critics say it benefits only the elite. In fact, a less open world would hurt the poor most of all
Oct 1st 2016 Economist
In September 1843 the Liverpool Mercury reported on a large free-trade rally in the city. The Royal Amphitheatre was overflowing. John Bright, a newly elected MP, spoke eloquently on the merits of abolishing duties on imported food, echoing arguments made in The Economist, a fledgling newspaper. Mr Bright told his audience that when canvassing, he had explained “how stonemasons, shoemakers, carpenters and every kind of artisan suffered if the trade of the country was restricted.” His speech in Liverpool was roundly cheered.
It is hard to imagine, 173 years later, a leading Western politician being lauded for a defence of free trade. Neither candidate in America’s presidential election is a champion. Donald Trump, incoherent on so many fronts, is clear in this area: unfair competition from foreigners has destroyed jobs at home. He threatens to dismantle the North American Free Trade Agreement, withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and start a trade war with China. To her discredit, Hillary Clinton now denounces the TPP, a pact she helped negotiate. In Germany, one of the world’s biggest exporters, tens of thousands took to the streets earlier this month to march against a proposed trade deal between the European Union and the United States.
The backlash against trade is just one symptom of a pervasive anxiety about the effects of open economies. Britain’s Brexit vote reflected concerns about the impact of unfettered migration on public services, jobs and culture. Big businesses are slammed for using foreign boltholes to dodge taxes. Such critiques contain some truth: more must be done to help those who lose out from openness. But there is a world of difference between improving globalisation and reversing it. The idea that globalisation is a scam that benefits only corporations and the rich could scarcely be more wrong.
The real pro-poor policy
Exhibit A is the vast improvement in global living standards in the decades after the second world war, which was underpinned by an explosion in world trade. Exports of goods rose from 8% of world GDP in 1950 to almost 20% a half-century later. Export-led growth and foreign investment have dragged hundreds of millions out of poverty in China, and transformed economies from Ireland to South Korea.
Plainly, Western voters are not much comforted by this extraordinary transformation in the fortunes of emerging markets. But at home, too, the overall benefits of free trade are unarguable. Exporting firms are more productive and pay higher wages than those that serve only the domestic market. Half of America’s exports go to countries with which it has a free-trade deal, even though their economies account for less than a tenth of global GDP.
Protectionism, by contrast, hurts consumers and does little for workers. The worst-off benefit far more from trade than the rich. A study of 40 countries found that the richest consumers would lose 28% of their purchasing power if cross-border trade ended; but those in the bottom tenth would lose 63%. The annual cost to American consumers of switching to non-Chinese tyres after Barack Obama slapped on anti-dumping tariffs in 2009 was around $1.1 billion, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. That amounts to over $900,000 for each of the 1,200 jobs that were “saved”.
Openness delivers other benefits. Migrants improve not just their own lives but the economies of host countries: European immigrants who arrived in Britain since 2000 have been net contributors to the exchequer, adding more than £20 billion ($34 billion) to the public finances between 2001 and 2011. Foreign direct investment delivers competition, technology, management know-how and jobs, which is why China’s overly cautious moves to encourage FDI disappoint.
Problems with Globalisation
None of this is to deny that globalisation has its flaws. Since the 1840s advocates of free trade have known that, though the great majority benefit, some lose out. Too little has been done to help these people. Perhaps a fifth of the 6m or so net job losses in American manufacturing between 1999 and 2011 stemmed from Chinese competition; many of those who lost jobs did not find new ones. With hindsight, politicians in Britain were too blithe about the pressures that migration from new EU member states in eastern Europe brought to bear on public services. And although there are no street protests about the speed and fickleness in the tides of short-term capital, its ebb and flow across borders have often proved damaging, not least in the euro zone’s debt-ridden countries.
More must be done to tackle these downsides. America spends a paltry 0.1% of its GDP, one-sixth of the rich-country average, on policies to retrain workers and help them find new jobs. In this context, it is lamentable that neither Mr Trump nor Mrs Clinton offers policies to help those whose jobs have been affected by trade or cheaper technology. On migration, it makes sense to follow the example of Denmark and link local-government revenues to the number of incomers, so that strains on schools, hospitals and housing can be eased. Many see the rules that bind signatories to trade pacts as an affront to democracy. But there are ways that shared rules can enhance national autonomy. Harmonising norms on how multinational firms are taxed would give countries greater command over their public finances. A co-ordinated approach to curbing volatile capital flows would restore mastery over national monetary policy.
These are the sensible responses to the peddlers of protectionism and nativism. The worst answer would be for countries to turn their backs on globalisation. The case for openness remains much the same as it did when this newspaper was founded in the 1840s. There are more—and more varied—opportunities in open economies than in closed ones. And, in general, greater opportunity makes people better off. Since the 1840s, free-traders have believed that closed economies favour the powerful and hurt the labouring classes. They were right then. They are right now.