Chapter 9: The Political Economy of Trade Policy

Chapter 10: The Political
Economy of Trade Policy
Udayan Roy
ECO 41 International Economics
• The case for free trade
• The case against free trade
• Political models of trade policy
• International negotiations over trade policy
and the World Trade Organization
Tariffs and quotas have deadweight losses and encourage rent-seeking;
free trade allows large-scale production, and provides more incentives
for innovation; even when barriers to free trade make economic sense,
these policies are often corrupted by interest groups
Free trade makes the world more
• Scarce resources are used most efficiently when
governments do not interfere with the way free
markets work.
– National welfare of a small country is highest under free
– Under restricted trade, consumers pay higher prices.
– Under restricted trade, prices for domestic producers are
artificially high. This causes overproduction either by
existing firms producing more or by more firms entering
the industry.
Fig. 10-1: The Efficiency Case for Free Trade
As these efficiency gains from
free trade are small—mostly
because tariff rates are already
quite low—they are not a
persuasive argument for free
However, there are other
arguments in favor of free trade
Table 10-1: Benefits of a
move to worldwide free
trade (percent of GDP)
Free trade boosts dynamic efficiency
• Free trade allows firms to take advantage of
economies of scale.
– Example: In the auto industry, to operate at efficient
scale, an auto plant should make a minimum of
80,000 cars per year.
– In Argentina, under a protectionist regime in 1964, 13
firms produced a total of 166,000 cars per year.
• Free trade provides
– Increased competition, and
– Greater incentives for innovation.
Free trade reduces rent seeking
• Quotas can lead to rent seeking behavior that is
economically wasteful
– In India in the 1950s and 1960s, the amount of resources
that a business was allowed to import was tied to how big
the business was. This gave businesses an artificial
incentive to over-invest and be big
– Tuna importers to the United States were allowed to bring
in a limited amount of tuna on a first-come-first-served
basis. Tuna importers spent a lot of money to stockpile
tuna in December, in order to be first in line in January
– Such wasteful activities that are provoked by quirks in the
laws are called rent seeking
Free trade keeps special-interest
politics at bay
• Free trade is the best feasible political policy,
even though there may be better policies in
– We’ll soon see some examples where barriers to free
trade may make economic sense
– But such policies often require selective intervention
– This opens the door to political squabbling
• Trade policies that single out certain industries
for protection from imports are in practice
dominated by special-interest politics rather than
consideration of national costs and benefits.
Terms of trade argument and domestic market failure argument
Terms of trade argument: optimum
• For a “large” country, a tariff or quota lowers the price of
imports in world markets and generates a terms of trade
– This benefit may exceed the losses caused by distortions in
production and consumption.
• In fact, a small tariff will lead to an increase in national
welfare for a large country.
– But at some tariff rate, the national welfare will begin to
decrease as the economic efficiency loss exceeds the terms of
trade gain.
– So the ideal or optimum tariff is greater than zero but less than
the prohibitive tariff that stops all imports
Fig. 10-2: The Optimum Tariff
Terms of trade argument: optimum
export tax
• An export tax (a negative export subsidy) that
completely prohibits exports leaves a country worse
off, but an export tax rate may exist that maximizes
national welfare through the terms of trade effect.
– An export subsidy lowers the terms of trade for a large
country; an export tax raises the terms of trade for a large
– An export tax may raise the price of exports in the world
market, increasing the terms of trade.
Terms of trade argument: flaws
• The argument doesn’t work for small
• Even if a large country benefits from a tariff,
that benefit comes at the expense of other
– The world as a whole would be worse off
– This would invite retaliatory tariffs, in which case
the tariff might hurt everybody
Domestic market failure argument
• The economic efficiency calculations using
consumer and producer surplus that we have
seen before assume that markets function
• But markets can fail
• In such cases, the usual arguments for free
trade may not work
Domestic market failure: examples
• Persistently high under-employment of workers
– Labor surpluses that are not eliminated because wages do not adjust
• Persistently high under-utilization of structures, equipment and
other forms of capital
– Capital surpluses that are not eliminated because prices do not adjust
• Technological benefits for society discovered through private
production, but from which private firms can not fully profit
• Environmental costs for society caused by private production, but
for which private firms do not fully pay
• Property rights that are not well defined or well enforced
• Sellers that are not well informed about the (opportunity) cost of
production or buyers that are not well informed about value from
Domestic market failure argument for
tariffs and quotas
• Figure 10-3: Production of a good
yields extra social benefits—area
(c) in panel (b)—not captured in
producer surplus
• A tariff or quota can increase
domestic output from S1 to S2.
• This might raise total surplus if
the external social benefit (c)
exceeds the deadweight loss (a +
Domestic market failure argument:
• A production subsidy would have the positive
features of a tariff but not its negative features
• Because it is unclear when and to what degree a
market failure exists in the real world, it is unclear
when and to what degree government policies
should respond
• Government policies to address market failures
are likely to be manipulated by politically
powerful groups
How special-interest groups that are against free trade can capture
political power and the special-interest groups that favor free trade are
• We have seen the arguments for and against
free trade
• The case for free trade is very strong
• Yet actual national policies are often against
free trade
• We need to understand the political process
that leads to trade barriers
Political Theories of Trade Policy
How is trade policy determined?
Here are some theories:
1. Median voter theory
2. Collective action theory
3. A theory that combines aspects of the collective action
and median voter theories
Median Voter Theory
• The median voter theorem predicts that democratic
political parties may change their policies to court
the voter in the middle of the ideological spectrum
(i.e., the median voter).
• Suppose that voters differ only in their views on what
the tariff rate should be
Median Voter Theory (cont.)
• The median voter theory assumes:
– There are two competing political parties
– Each party has to decide what the tariff rate
should be
– Voters differ in the tariff rates they prefer
• What policies will the two parties propose?
– Answer: Both parties will support the tariff rate
that the median voter (the voter who is exactly at
the middle of the ideological spectrum) prefers
Median Voter Theory Fails
• The median voter theory cannot explain the
widespread use of tariffs
• Those who benefit from a tariff are usually
few in number compared to those who are
hurt by the tariff
• Therefore, had the median voter theory been
correct, tariffs would rarely have been enacted
Collective Action Theory
• Political activity is often described as a collective
action problem
• This approach views political activity as a public good.
– For instance, if one consumer’s letter to a politician helps
to stop a tariff, all consumers would benefit
– This encourages free riding
• Consequently, trade policies that impose large total
losses that are spread among a large number of
individual consumers may not face opposition.
– Industries that are well organized (or have a small number
of firms) will succeed in blocking foreign competition
Sugar Import Quota, 2013
• The U.S. quota on sugar imports
– Limits imports to 3 million tons
• under free trade, imports would be 66% higher
– Keeps the U.S. price 35% above world price
– Consumers lose $884 million annually
– Producers gain $272 million annually
– Overall loss to the U.S. is $612 million per year
• So, why do we have the sugar import quota??
Sugar Import Quota, 2013
• The loss per consumer is only $3 per year. This is about $11
per family.
• As the U.S. sugar industry employs about 6,500 workers, the
producers’ gains per employee is $42,000 per year.
• No wonder, the producers are politically organized and the
consumers don’t bother!
• The final insult: without the quota, about 32% of the 6,500
workers would have had to look for jobs elsewhere.
• Thus, the cost to the consumer per job saved in the sugar
industry is more than $432,000 per year.
Sugar Import Quota, 2013
• Moreover, those who lose jobs in the sugar
industry may well find jobs elsewhere
• Moreover, for every job “saved” in the sugar
industry, economists have estimated that
three jobs are lost in the confectionary
manufacturing industry, because the sugar
quota keeps sugar prices high
The political process
• In reality the median voter theory and the
collective action theory may both be true
• While politicians may win elections partly
because they advocate popular policies as
implied by the median voter theory, they also
require funds to run campaigns
• These funds may especially come from groups
who do not have a collective action problem
and are willing to advocate a special interest
Which Industries Are Protected?
• Agriculture: in the U.S., Europe, and Japan farmers make
up a small fraction of the electorate but receive generous
subsidies and trade protection.
– Examples: European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy,
Japan’s 1000% tariff on imported rice, America’s sugar quota.
• Clothing: textiles (fabrication of cloth) and apparel
(assembly of cloth into clothing).
– Until 2005, quotas licenses granted to textile and apparel
exporters were specified in the Multi-Fiber Agreement between
the U.S. and many other nations.
Table 10-2: Welfare Costs of U.S.
Protection ($ billion)
2002 Estimate
2013 Projected
Textiles and apparel
Source: U.S. International Trade Commission
How export industries can be brought into politics on the side of free
International Negotiations over Trade Policy
• The average U.S. tariff rate on dutiable imports has
decreased substantially from 1920–1993.
Fig. 10-5: The U.S. Tariff Rate
International Negotiations over Trade Policy
• Since 1944, much of the reduction in tariffs and other
trade restrictions came about through international
– The General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade was begun in
1947 as a provisional international agreement and was
replaced by a more formal international institution called the
World Trade Organization in 1995.
• Why did it take international negotiations?
• Why didn’t these countries reduce their tariffs
The Advantages of International
• It is easier to lower tariffs as part of a mutual
agreement than to do so as a unilateral policy
– It helps mobilize exporters to support freer trade
and speak up against the import-competing
industries who oppose imports.
– It can help governments avoid getting caught in
destructive trade wars.
– It reduces the possibility of an adverse terms-oftrade effect from a unilateral reduction of tariffs.
Multilateral negotiations: the export industries
enter the fight!
• Multilateral negotiations mobilize exporters to
support free trade if they believe that their export
markets will expand when other countries
reciprocate by embracing free trade.
– This support would be lacking in a unilateral push for free
– This support counteracts the support for restricted trade
by import-competing groups.
Bilateral Trade Liberalization
• Suppose the USA and Brazil currently impose
tariffs on each other’s goods and cannot
unilaterally remove the tariffs because of the
political power of US coffee growers and Brazilian
wheat farmers
• When bilateral negotiations begin, the US coffee
growers’ (or, Brazilian wheat farmers’) resistance
to free trade would be opposed by US wheat
farmers (or, Brazilian coffee growers) eyeing a
possible reduction of Brazil’s (or, the US’s) tariffs
on US wheat (or, Brazilian coffee).
• In this way, bilateral negotiations to reduce tariffs
can succeed even when unilateral efforts fail.
Multilateral Trade Liberalization
• In this example, bilateral
negotiations between, say, Angola
and Brazil will not succeed in
reducing tariffs.
– As Brazil does not export coffee to
Angola, there will be no opposition
to Brazilian oil producers’ demands
for a tariff on Angolan oil.
• However, a multilateral agreement
will be successful. In each country,
exporters will organize to oppose
importers’ resistance to the
multilateral agreement.
Multilateral Trade Liberalization
• Another reason why multilateral deals may be
more successful has to do with the terms of trade
• Suppose the USA is a big importer of coffee
• A cut in tariffs by USA would raise worldwide
coffee prices from which all coffee exporters
would benefit
• These coffee exporters may collectively be able to
offer more to the USA as a quid pro quo for the
tariff cut than a lone coffee exporter ever could
Multilateral negotiations: trade wars avoided
• Multilateral negotiations also help avoid a trade war between
countries, where each country enacts trade restrictions.
• A trade war could result if each country has a political interest
(due to political pressure) to protect domestic producers,
regardless of what other countries do.
– All countries could enact trade restrictions, even if it is in the interest
of all countries to have free trade.
• Let’s use a simple example to illustrate this point.
Multilateral negotiations: trade wars
TABLE 10-3
Dominant strategy
for Japan
Dominant strategy
for USA
Multilateral negotiations: trade wars
• In Table 10-3, each country would choose
• Even though each country acting individually
would be better off with protection, they would
both be better off if both chose free trade.
– In game theory, this situation is known as a Prisoner’s
• Japan and the U.S. can establish a binding
agreement to maintain free trade and thereby
escape the prisoner’s dilemma.
History: Bilateral versus Multilateral
• Smoot-Hawley tariffs in 1930
• Widely recognized to be a mistake that worsened
the Great Depression
• But unilateral tariff reduction was politically
• Initially bilateral tariff-reducing agreements were
• Later multilateral agreements became popular
• Why?
International Negotiations
and Trade Policy: History
• International trade negotiations began after
World War II
• The initial agreement among 23 major
countries was called the General Agreement
on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
• In 1995 the World Trade organization (WTO)
was established to organize further
The GATT-WTO system
The GATT-WTO system tries to reduce trade
restrictions in 3 main ways:
Reduction of tariff rates through multilateral negotiations.
Binding: a tariff is “bound” by having the imposing country
agree not to raise it in the future.
Prevention of non-tariff barriers: quotas and export subsidies
are changed to tariffs because the costs of tariff protection are
more apparent.
Subsidies for agricultural exports are an exception.
Exceptions are also allowed for “market disruptions” caused by a
sudden surge in imports.
• Successive “rounds” of negotiations are held to
gradually reduce trade barriers
World Trade Organization (cont.)
• The World Trade Organization was founded in 1995
on a number of agreements
– General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade: covers trade in
– General Agreement on Tariffs and Services: covers trade in
services (ex., insurance, consulting, legal services,
– Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual
Property: covers international property rights (ex., patents
and copyrights).
World Trade Organization (cont.)
• The dispute settlement procedure: a formal
procedure where countries in a trade dispute can
bring their case to a panel of WTO experts to rule
– The cases are settled fairly quickly: even with appeals the
procedure is not supposed to last more than 15 months.
– The panel uses previous agreements by member countries to
decide which ones are breaking their agreements.
– A country that refuses to adhere to the panel’s decision may be
punished by allowing other countries to impose trade
restrictions on its exports.
World Trade Organization (cont.)
• The GATT/WTO multilateral negotiations, ratified in
1994 (called the Uruguay Round),
– agreed that all quantitative restrictions (e.g., quotas) on
trade in textiles and clothing as previously specified in the
Multi-Fiber Agreement were to be eliminated by 2005.
• But as the restrictions were eliminated, China had to
reimpose quotas until 2011 due to political pressure.
WTO: US v. Venezuela
• US laws allowed domestic oil refineries to sell oil with more
pollutants than imported oil
• Venezuela, which exports oil to the US, sued the US at the
• Venezuela won. The US had to change its laws to make them
• This episode showed that the WTO worked
• Environmentalists complained that the WTO made it harder
for the US to reduce pollution
• Actually, the fault lies with the US law. The WTO should not be
World Trade Organization (cont.)
• In 2001, a new round of negotiations was
started in Doha, Qatar, but these negotiations
have failed to produce an agreement.
– Most of the remaining forms of protection are in
agriculture, textiles and clothing—industries that
are politically active
Table 10-4: Percentage Distribution of Potential
Gains from Free Trade
Do Agricultural Subsidies in Rich Countries Hurt
Poor Countries?
• We learned in chapter 8 that subsidies lower the world price
of products because domestic producers are enticed to
produce more.
– So why should poor countries want rich countries to remove their
agricultural subsidies?
– The likely answer has to do with the desires of farmers in poor
countries who compete with farmers in rich countries.
– Yet, urban residents and farmers who do not compete (e.g., coffee
farmers) actually benefit from the lower prices of subsidized food on
world markets.
• For example, because China imports a lot of food, it would be hurt by the
removal of agricultural subsidies in rich countries (e.g., the U.S. and
Europe) according to the Doha negotiations.
Table 10-5: Percentage Gains in
Income under Two Doha Scenarios
Preferential Trading Agreements
• Preferential trading agreements are trade agreements
between countries in which they lower tariffs for each other
but not for the rest of the world.
• Under the WTO, such discriminatory trade policies are
generally not allowed:
– Each country in the WTO promises that all countries will pay tariffs no
higher than the nation that pays the lowest: called the “most favored
nation” (MFN) principle.
– An exception to this principle is allowed only if the lowest tariff rate is
set at zero.
Preferential Trading Agreements (cont.)
There are two types of preferential trading
agreements in which tariff rates are set at or near
1. A free trade area: an agreement that allows free
trade among members, but each member can have
its own trade policy towards non-member
An example is the North America Free Trade Agreement
Preferential Trading Agreements (cont.)
2. A customs union: an agreement that allows free
trade among members and requires a common
external trade policy towards non-member
An example is the European Union.
Preferential Trading Agreements (cont.)
• Are preferential trading agreements necessarily good
for national welfare?
• No, it is possible that national welfare decreases
under a preferential trading agreement.
• How? Rather than gaining tariff revenue from
inexpensive imports from world markets, a country
may import expensive products from member
countries but not gain any tariff revenue.
Preferential Trading Agreements (cont.)
• Preferential trading agreements increase national welfare
when new trade is created, but not when existing trade from
the outside world is diverted to trade with member countries.
• Trade creation
– occurs when high cost domestic production is replaced by low cost
imports from other members.
• Trade diversion
– occurs when low cost imports from non-members are diverted to high
cost imports from member nations.
Trade Diversion in South America
• Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay formed a free
trade area in 1991 called Mercosur
• Within four years, trade among these countries tripled
• A 1996 World Bank study, however, argued that this
trade creation was probably exceeded by trade
diversion, and that the overall effect of Mercosur was
probably negative
– Argentina began importing Brazilian cars because those
inefficiently produced cars faced no tariffs
– Had Argentina imported other cars, it could have earned
large tariff revenues

similar documents