Keynes on global trade, conflict and full employment

keynesThe passage below is taken from the concluding pages of John Maynard Keynes’ famous General Theory, where he speculates on the benefits to international relations from avoiding conflict over international trade. If full employment can be achieved domestically through judicious government policies this would, he hoped, lessen the need for countries to come into conflict with each other over the balance of payments of trade, investment and capital flows.

Given the historical record, I am actually skeptical about the possibilities for achieving and sustaining full employment, however that might be defined. I am therefore not a perennially optimistic Keynesian. Sooner or later, growing economic imbalances will give rise to crisis and recession, and rising unemployment. However, I do think the world economy could be more wisely managed than it is now, with the US the (still?) reluctant hegemon and a rising China among other potentially destabilising trends.

In a world of weak demand growth, pressures arise for protectionism and conflict over international trade. One country might gain in the short run from protectionist policies, but if all the richest and largest economies close their markets, world trade will shrink and damage prosperity over the longer term.

Regular readers will note that I have often argued on this blog that protection can be justified for infant industries in poor countries in the process of development and ‘catching-up’. The historical record shows this to be true. It is also true that intellectual property rights become a source of protection for firms in richer and more technologically advanced economies. This can also be justified in various cases, though it can be damaging if upheld for too long. Nevertheless, growing international trade offers potential gains to all sides, providing the uneven distributive outcomes are well-managed.

Here is Keynes, on page 382-3 of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936):

“…[U]nder the system of domestic laissez-faire and an international gold standard such as was orthodox in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was no means open to a government whereby to mitigate economic distress at home except through the competitive struggle for markets. For all measures helpful to a state of chronic or intermittent under-employment were ruled out, except measures to improve the balance of trade on income account.

Thus, whilst economists were accustomed to applaud the prevailing international system as furnishing the fruits of the international division of labour and harmonising at the same time the interests of different nations, there lay concealed a less benign influence; and those statesmen were moved by common sense and a correct apprehension of the true course of events, who believed that if a rich, old country were to neglect the struggle for markets its prosperity would droop and fail. But if nations can learn to provide themselves with full employment by their domestic policy (and, we must add, if they can also attain equilibrium in the trend of their population), there need be no important economic forces calculated to set the interest of one country against that of its neighbours. There would still be room for the international division of labour and for international lending in appropriate conditions. But there would no longer be a pressing motive why one country need force its wares on another or repulse the offerings of its neighbour, not because this was necessary to enable it to pay for what it wished to purchase, but with the express object of upsetting the equilibrium of payments so as to develop a balance of trade in its own favour. International trade would cease to be what it is, namely, a desperate expedient to maintain employment at home by forcing sales on foreign markets and restricting purchases, which, if successful, will merely shift the problem of unemployment to the neighbour which is worsted in the struggle, but a willing and unimpeded exchange of goods and services in conditions of mutual advantage.”

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