History of Free Trade

It is known that various prosperous world civilizations throughout history have engaged in trade. Based on this, theoretical rationalizations as to why a policy of free trade would be beneficial to nations developed over time, especially in Europe, and especially in England, over the past five centuries. Before the appearance of Free Trade doctrine, and continuing in opposition to it to this day, the policy of mercantilism had developed in Europe in the 1500s. Early economists opposed to mercantilism were David Ricardo and Adam Smith.

Economists that advocated free trade believed trade was the reason why certain civilizations prospered economically. Adam Smith, for example, pointed to increased trading as being the reason for the flourishing of not just Mediterranean cultures such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but also of Bengal (East India) and China. The great prosperity of the Netherlands after throwing off Spanish Imperial rule, and declaring Free Trade and Freedom of thought, made the Free Trade/Mercantilist dispute the most important question in economics for centuries. Free trade policies have battled with mercantilist, protectionist, isolationist, communist, and other policies over the centuries.

Wars have been fought over trade, such as the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Opium Wars between China and Great Britain, and other colonial wars. All developed countries have used protectionism due to an interest in raising revenues, protecting infant industries, special interest pressure, and, prior to the 19th century, a belief in mercantilism.

Many classical liberals, especially in 19th and early 20th century Britain (e.g. John Stuart Mill) and in the United States for much of the 20th century (e.g. Cordell Hull), believed that free trade promoted peace. The British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) was brought up on this belief, which underpinned his criticism of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 for the damage it did to the interdependent European economy. After a brief flirtation with protectionism in the early 1930s, he came again to favour free trade so long as it was combined with internationally coordinated domestic economic policies to promote high levels of employment, and international economic institutions that meant that the interests of countries were not pitted against each other. In these circumstances, 'the wisdom of Adam Smith' again applied, he said.

Some degree of Protectionism is nevertheless the norm throughout the world. In most developed nations, controversial agricultural tariffs are maintained. From 1820 to 1980, the average tariffs on manufactures in twelve industrial countries ranged from 11 to 32%. In the developing world, average tariffs on manufactured goods are approximately 34%.

Currently, the World Bank believes that, at most, rates of 20% can be allowed [!] by developing nations ; but Ha-Joon Chang believes higher levels may be justified because the productivity gap between developing and developed nations is much higher than the productivity gap which industrial countries faced. (A general feature is that the underdeveloped nations of today are not in the same position that the developed nations were in when they had a similar level of technology, because they are weak players in a competitive system; the developed nations have always been strong players, although formerly at an overall lower level.) If the main defense of tariffs is to stimulate infant industries, a tariff must be high enough to allow domestic manufactured goods to compete for the tariff to be possibly successful. This theory, known as import substitution industrialization, is largely considered to be ineffective for currently developing nations, and studies by the World Bank have determined that export-oriented industrialization policies correlate with higher economic growth as observed with the Four Asian Tigers. These assessments are based mainly on theory and observational study of correlations, and thus suffer from a number of weaknesses such as small sample size and numerous confounding variables (see the critical review section below).

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