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WANT PEACE? PROMOTE FREE TRADE.

free trade

WANT PEACE? PROMOTE FREE TRADE.

Frédéric Bastiat famously claimed that “if goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.”

Bastiat argued that free trade between countries could reduce international conflict because trade forges connections between nations and gives each country an incentive to avoid war with its trading partners. If every nation were an economic island, the lack of positive interaction created by trade could leave more room for conflict. Two hundred years after Bastiat, libertarians take this idea as gospel. Unfortunately, not everyone does. But as recent research shows, the historical evidence confirms Bastiat’s famous claim.

To Trade or to Raid

In “Peace through Trade or Free Trade?” professor Patrick J. McDonald, from the University of Texas at Austin, empirically tested whether greater levels of protectionism in a country (tariffs, quotas, etc.) would increase the probability of international conflict in that nation. He used a tool called dyads to analyze every country’s international relations from 1960 until 2000. A dyad is the interaction between one country and another country: German and French relations would be one dyad, German and Russian relations would be a second, French and Australian relations would be a third. He further broke this down into dyad-years; the relations between Germany and France in 1965 would be one dyad-year, the relations between France and Australia in 1973 would be a second, and so on.

Using these dyad-years, McDonald analyzed the behavior of every country in the world for the past 40 years. His analysis showed a negative correlation between free trade and conflict: The more freely a country trades, the fewer wars it engages in. Countries that engage in free trade are less likely to invade and less likely to be invaded.

Trading partners

The Causal Arrow

Of course, this finding might be a matter of confusing correlation for causation. Maybe countries engaging in free trade fight less often for some other reason, like the fact that they tend also to be more democratic. Democratic countries make war less often than empires do. But McDonald controls for these variables. Controlling for a state’s political structure is important, because democracies and republics tend to fight less than authoritarian regimes.

McDonald also controlled for a country’s economic growth, because countries in a recession are more likely to go to war than those in a boom, often in order to distract their people from their economic woes. McDonald even controlled for factors like geographic proximity: It’s easier for Germany and France to fight each other than it is for the United States and China, because troops in the former group only have to cross a shared border.

The takeaway from McDonald’s analysis is that protectionism can actually lead to conflict. McDonald found that a country in the bottom 10 percent for protectionism (meaning it is less protectionist than 90 percent of other countries) is 70 percent less likely to engage in a new conflict (either as invader or as target) than one in the top 10 percent for protectionism.

Trade and Conflict

Protectionism and War

Why does protectionism lead to conflict, and why does free trade help to prevent it? The answers, though well-known to classical liberals, are worth mentioning.

First, trade creates international goodwill. If Chinese and American businessmen trade on a regular basis, both sides benefit. And mutual benefit disposes people to look for the good in each other. Exchange of goods also promotes an exchange of cultures. For decades, Americans saw China as a mysterious country with strange, even hostile values. But in the 21st century, trade between our nations has increased markedly, and both countries know each other a little better now. iPod-wielding Chinese teenagers are like American teenagers, for example. They’re not terribly mysterious. Likewise, the Chinese understand democracy and American consumerism more than they once did. The countries may not find overlap in all of each other’s values, but trade has helped us to at least understand each other.

Trade helps to humanize the people that you trade with. And it’s tougher to want to go to war with your human trading partners than with a country you see only as lines on a map.

Second, trade gives nations an economic incentive to avoid war. If Nation X sells its best steel to Nation Y, and its businessmen reap plenty of profits in exchange, then businessmen on both sides are going to oppose war. This was actually the case with Germany and France right before World War I. Germany sold steel to France, and German businessmen were firmly opposed to war. They only grudgingly came to support it when German ministers told them that the war would only last a few short months. German steel had a strong incentive to oppose war, and if the situation had progressed a little differently—or if the German government had been a little more realistic about the timeline of the war—that incentive might have kept Germany out of World War I.

% reduction in conflict

Third, protectionism promotes hostility. This is why free trade, not just aggregate trade (which could be accompanied by high tariffs and quotas), leads to peace. If the United States imposes a tariff on Japanese automobiles, that tariff hurts Japanese businesses. It creates hostility in Japan toward the United States. Japan might even retaliate with a tariff on U.S. steel, hurting U.S. steel makers and angering our government, which would retaliate with another tariff. Both countries now have an excuse to leverage nationalist feelings to gain support at home; that makes outright war with the other country an easier sell, should it come to that.

In socioeconomic academic circles, this is called the Richardson process of reciprocal and increasing hostilities; the United States harms Japan, which retaliates, causing the United States to retaliate again. History shows that the Richardson process can easily be applied to protectionism. For instance, in the 1930s, industrialized nations raised tariffs and trade barriers; countries eschewed multilateralism and turned inward. These decisions led to rising hostilities, which helped set World War II in motion.

These factors help explain why free trade leads to peace, and protectionism leads to more conflict.

Free Trade and Peace

One final note: McDonald’s analysis shows that taking a country from the top 10 percent for protectionism to the bottom 10 percent will reduce the probability of future conflict by 70 percent. He performed the same analysis for the democracy of a country and showed that taking a country from the top 10 percent (very democratic) to the bottom 10 percent (not democratic) would only reduce conflict by 30 percent.

Democracy is a well-documented deterrent: The more democratic a country becomes, the less likely it is to resort to international conflict. But reducing protectionism, according to McDonald, is more than twice as effective at reducing conflict than becoming more democratic.

Here in the United States, we talk a lot about spreading democracy. We invaded Iraq partly to “spread democracy.” A New York Times op-ed by Professor Dov Ronen of Harvard University claimed that “the United States has been waging an ideological campaign to spread democracy around the world” since 1989. One of the justifications for our international crusade is to make the world a safer place.

Perhaps we should spend a little more time spreading free trade instead. That might really lead to a more peaceful world.

This article was originally published on FEE.org.

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Julian Adorney

Julian Adorney is a Young Voices contributor. He’s written for FEE, National Review, The Federalist, and blogs at The Empathetic Libertarian.

Vietnam

Why Washington Shouldn’t see Vietnam as the Next China

In a recent Senate Finance Committee report, U.S. Trade Czar Robert Lighthizer opined that Vietnam must take action to curb its growing trade surplus with the U.S., including removing barriers to market access for U.S. companies.

While it is true that Vietnam’s trade surplus has grown significantly in 2019, much of it is the result of the trade war between the U.S. and China that has prompted importers to source from Vietnam as an alternative to China.

Rather than attempt to stunt Vietnam’s trade surplus through tariffs or other trade actions, Washington should be establishing alliances with countries in Southeast Asia as part of its quest to ensure balanced trade and market stability.

Lighthizer’scomments were in response to queries from the Committee and echoed previous statements made by White House administration officials who have identified Vietnam as one of several countries to watch with respect to trade activity. And while there hasn’t been a direct threat of imposing tariffs on Vietnamese imports, the recent implementation of a 400% duty on Vietnamese steel imports and the recent rhetoric in Washington regarding transshipment has many businesses nervous that their new safe haven may be the President’s next target for trade action.

Troublesome to United State Trade Representative (USTR) is that the surplus thus far in 2019 is already more than 30% higher than it was at this time last year, making Vietnam the leading nation in terms of percentage increase of import value in 2019.

Hastening trade imbalance

Washington has been at least somewhat complicit in hastening Vietnam’s growing trade surplus. Since the U.S. began imposing tariffs on China-origin goods, many U.S. companies (and some Chinese companies) have been looking to shift production to neighboring markets in Asia. A recent poll of U.S. companies by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in China showed that more than 40% of American companies with production in China were looking to move to a neighboring country if they hadn’t already done so. These include the likes of Dell, HP, Steve Madden, Brooks and others. Even non-U.S. companies, like Japan’s Nintendo and China’s own electronics giant TCL are looking to shift production out of China and into Vietnam.

Vietnam was an obvious choice for many of these manufacturers looking to circumvent Washington’s onerous tariffs. For years, Vietnam has been investing heavily in improving its roadway and port infrastructure, as well as augmenting its pool of high-skilled laborers so that it can attract large hi-tech giants. The advancements were well-timed to coincide with increasing wages and regulatory restrictions in China that were driving up costs and forcing foreign producers to look elsewhere for low-cost manufacturing alternatives. This was taking place well before the current administration in Washington began cracking down on China’s questionable trade practices.

To be fair, Washington does have some cause for complaint. It’s one of Asia’s worst kept secrets that Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand have become convenient transshipment hubs for Chinese companies looking to circumvent quotas and, more recently, tariffs by making minor tweaks in neighboring countries to products almost wholly manufactured in China and sending them along to the U.S. as “Vietnamese” or “Malaysian” exports. In the end, there is little monetary gain for Vietnam and much opportunity for reputational damage. Hanoi’s incentive for playing along is purely political; it wants to placate China, its much larger neighbor and regional hegemon.

Hanoi has already said it will crackdown on Chinese transshipments labeled as being of Vietnamese origin. Nikkei Asian Review is reporting the Vietnamese government is considering new rules that would require 30% of a good’s price to be comprised of Vietnamese manufacturing for it to be considered as being of Vietnamese origin. Whether or not this will pacify the USTR remains to be seen.

Yet while Chinese transshipments may have been a catalyst to Vietnam’s soaring trade surplus, the ongoing U.S-China trade war has unquestionably accelerated the development of a trend that was only in its infancy a few short years ago.

If Washington is looking to penalize Vietnam for a trade surplus born out of Washington’s trade war with Beijing, where will the cycle of tariffs end?

Options for low-cost sourcing plentiful

Let’s assume Washington succeeds in quelling the growth of Vietnam’s trade surplus by imposing tariffs in the same manner it has with China, the EU and other entities. The likely outcome will be that U.S. companies then look to Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh or Cambodia (as many have already) to replace or supplement their production in China.

Let’s assume that Washington then imposes similar tariffs on imports from those countries. The likely outcome will be that U.S. companies then shift their attention to India, Mexico or any other country that offer lower cost labor and limited regulatory burden. And on and on it goes.

Washington wants to see production repatriated back to the United States, but only six percent of American companies moving production out of China are looking at reshoring their manufacturing facilities. One of the key reasons is that the facilities currently in China are intended to support regional exports and reshoring production to the U.S. would result in unnecessary transport costs and time in transit. In other cases, the cost of moving production to the U.S. could be too onerous to allow companies to compete globally.

A battle worth waging – along with friends and allies

This is not to suggest Washington’s war on China’s unsavory trade practices is unjust or futile. On the contrary, China’s history of misappropriating intellectual property through technology transfer, cybersecurity incidents and other trade violations requires America to act. But tariffs only punish American companies that will continue to shift their production as necessary to reduce their landed costs.

Instead of reprimanding and punishing countries like Vietnam with tariffs in response to growing trade surpluses, Washington should be working with them to forge alliances that will ensure China is forced to play by the rules.

If the U.S. truly wants to stave off bad actors such as China from continuing to abuse the global trade’s rule-based system, it will need the support of friends and allies in the eastern and western hemispheres. Acting alone and imposing unilateral restrictions only throws Washington into a battle of wills for which collateral damage is certain, but the outcome remains unknown.

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Cora Di Pietro is vice president of Global Trade Consulting at trade-services firm Livingston International. She is a frequent speaker and lecturer at industry and academic events and is an active member of numerous industry groups and associations. She can be reached at cdipietro@livingstonintl.com.