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Razeen Sally’s Trade Policy, New Century (PDF) succeeds magnificently in explaining the 21st-century case for free trade and, specifically, unilateral trade liberalisation to the interested, non-specialist reader.

From the IEA home page of the book:

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is failing to deliver the trade liberalisation desperately needed to bring prosperity to developing countries, according to a new study released today by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The WTO is hamstrung by a cumbersome negotiating model and the influence of vocal protectionist lobbies who oppose free markets. At the same time, increasingly popular regional ‘free-trade agreements’ often create as many barriers as they remove by erecting new obstacles to trade with countries outside the blocs concerned.

In the context of policy paralysis at the WTO, the author, LSE trade expert Dr Razeen Sally, argues that governments must take back the initiative from supranational institutions. The priority must be unilateral liberalisation – removing trade barriers to benefit domestic consumers rather than waiting for tortuous international negotiations to be resolved. Governments can also help maximise the benefits of free trade by liberalising their economies and strengthening key institutions.

But what is the imperative for the UK? Surely, European Union citizens enjoy free trade?

The EU is a customs union: we trade ostensibly freely within it, but, as can be seen from the EU’s TARIC database, we find ourselves behind a complex system of tariffs on, for example, wheat, notwithstanding the battle long since won by our inspiration, Richard Cobden, to repeal England’s Corn Laws in the general interest.

And this is the key point: free trade is in the general interest. We may make the political and economic arguments in detail, but the public good is our ultimate aim, and not just at home. Razeen Sally explains (pp179-180, emphasis mine):

Adam Smith fortified his presumption in favour of free trade with an explicit political argument. Protectionism is driven by ‘the clamorous importunity of partial interests’ who capture government and prevent it from having ‘an extensive view of the general good’. Free trade, in contrast, tilts the balance away from rent-seeking producer interests and towards the mass of consumers. It is part of a wider constitutional package to keep government limited, transparent and clean, enabling it to concentrate better on the public good.

As important to Smith and Hume was the moral case for free trade, centred on individual freedom. Individual choice is the engine of free trade, and of progressive commercial society more generally. It sparks what Hume called a ‘spirit of industry’; it results in much better life-chances, not just for the select few but for individuals in the broad mass of society who are able to lead more varied and interesting lives.

To sum up: free trade is of course associated with standard economic efficiency arguments. But the classical-liberal case for free trade is more rounded, taking in the moral imperative of individual freedom and linking it to prosperity. Finally, free trade contributes to, though it does not guarantee, peaceful international relations. Freedom, prosperity, security: this trinity lies at the heart of the case for free trade.

In a short article, I can scarcely do justice to this monograph’s insight in relation to the case for classic liberalism nor to its observations on emerging geopolitics: I heartily recommend the book.

Further reading

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