“Free trade is the sensible rule of thumb most of the time in most sectors. It is sensible because the efficiency gains are often real, even if the theory of comparative advantage over-generalizes them; and it is a simpler rule for any state and for inter-state agreements than rules for managed trade. But the argument…about production and employment, in the context of economic growth rather than static resource efficiency, suggests that inter-state agreements, including the rules of the WTO, should be revised to permit more government “leadership” and “followership” of the market – sometimes by leading the production structure into activities the private sector would not undertake on its own, sometimes by making bets on initiatives already underway in the private sector to assist those initiatives to scale up. This contrasts with the current situation, in which the WTO restricts the use of instruments relevant to developing countries’ efforts to upgrade the national production structure – including tariffs, non-tariff barriers, and direct industry subsidies – while allowing instruments relevant to advanced countries’ efforts to grow new activities on the world frontier, such as R&D subsidies. The WTO is, put crudely, an industrial upgrading device for advanced countries, an industrial downgrading device for developing countries. President Trump surely does not intend his skepticism of free trade to benefit developing countries, but it gives the potential for others to modify international rules towards more “policy space””.
Robert H. Wade (2017), Is Trump wrong on trade? A partial defense based on production and employment, in E. Fullbrook and J. Morgan (eds.), Trumponomics – Causes and Consequences, College Publications and World Economic Association, p.97
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