Harvard economist Dani Rodrik recently responded to a question/critique on why he doesn’t believe in the faith about free trade between nations while not showing that much dissent for trade within boundaries. Among the various points in his defence are fiscal transfers and regional policies. Rodrik says:
Another thing that happens is that there is an overarching state that will engage in transfer payments and other policies that aid the lagging region. The region will have political representatives in the national government who will push for the interests of those adversely affected.
That’s a nice point. See my blog post on how fiscal transfers help in reducing regional balance-of-payments problems.
Cafe Hayek responded to Rodrik here. An important point in that argument is: why does it matter if the consumer buys from a domestic producer as opposed to a foreign producer. The Cafe Hayek author Don Boudreaux says:
Now to point (1) – the more narrowly economic point. Sellers in foreign countries sell things to buyers in the home country only because they – the foreign sellers – wish to increase their wealth. The motives are identical to those of sellers in the domestic economy. What do foreign sellers do with the revenues they earn from the sale of their exports? They spend them. They save them. They invest them. Perhaps on occasion they hoard them. These options are no different from the options confronting domestic sellers. If the funds spent on imports return to the domestic economy as demand for exports, jobs and economic activity shift from import-competing domestic industries into exporting industries. No problem. If these funds instead return as investments in the domestic economy, again there’s no problem: when, for example, Ikea opens a store in New Jersey it employs workers in that store no less than would an American who opened a similar store.
Now to argue straight with the above. FDI flow is just one flow in the capital and financial account of the balance of payments. And in the stock sense, FDI is just one type of liability among many others such as government debt held by foreigners. These just pay interest to foreigners.
Apart from that, foreigners are not likely to import as much as they export. A nation can have a high amount of imports and less exports. So there’s an asymmetry here – differing level of competitiveness.
But even if competitiveness were equal, nationality of buyers and sellers still matters. This is because creditor nations’ governments may not expand fiscal policy to the extent that is needed for the benefit of the world as a whole. If the government of a nation keeps fiscal policy relatively tight, it affects domestic demand, output and incomes of economic units and hence their imports.
So to summarize, difference in competitiveness and a relatively tighter fiscal stance of creditor nations affects trade and balance-of-payments of other nations. This in turn affects output because a nation which could potentially grow fast may find itself with balance-of-payments problems. Free trade doesn’t help poor nations.
This discussion can also be used in the case of the Euro Area where trade was made more free when the Euro Area was formed. Since there is no central government for the Euro Area, free trade works against nations which have been affected by the crisis.