A contemporary example: China’s comparative advantage with the United States is in the form of cheap labor. Chinese workers produce simple consumer goods at a much lower opportunity cost. The United States’ comparative advantage is in specialized, capital-intensive labor. American workers produce sophisticated goods or investment opportunities at lower opportunity costs. Specializing and trading along these lines benefit each.
The theory of comparative advantage helps to explain why protectionism is typically unsuccessful. Adherents to this analytical approach believe that countries engaged in international trade will have already worked toward finding partners with comparative advantages. If a country removes itself from an international trade agreement, if a government imposes tariffs, and so on, it may produce a local benefit in the form of new jobs and industry. However, this is not a long-term solution to a trade problem. Eventually, that country will be at a disadvantage relative to its neighbors: countries that were already better able to produce these items at a lower opportunity cost.
Criticisms of Comparative Advantage
Why doesn't the world have open trading between countries? When there is free trade, why do some countries remain poor at the expense of others? Perhaps comparative advantage does not work as suggested. There are many reasons this could be the case, but the most influential is something that economists call rent-seeking. Rent-seeking occurs when one group organizes and lobbies the government to protect its interests.
Say, for example, the producers of American shoes understand and agree with the free-trade argument—but they also know that cheaper foreign shoes would negatively impact their narrow interests. Even if laborers would be most productive by switching from making shoes to making computers, nobody in the shoe industry wants to lose his or her job or see profits decrease in the short run.
This desire leads the shoemakers to lobby for, say, special tax breaks for their products and/or extra duties (or even outright bans) on foreign footwear. Appeals to save American jobs and preserve a time-honored American craft abound—even though, in the long run, American laborers would be made relatively less productive and American consumers relatively poorer by such protectionist tactics.
Free Trade Vs. Protectionism
As with other theories, there are opposing views. International trade has two contrasting views regarding the level of control placed on trade: free trade and protectionism. Free trade is the simpler of the two theories: a laissez-faire approach, with no restrictions on trade. The main idea is that supply and demandfactors, operating on a global scale, will ensure that production happens efficiently. Therefore, nothing needs to be done to protect or promote trade and growth because market forces will do so automatically.
In contrast, protectionism holds that regulation of international trade is important to ensure that markets function properly. Advocates of this theory believe that market inefficiencies may hamper the benefits of international trade, and they aim to guide the market accordingly. Protectionism exists in many different forms, but the most common are tariffs, subsidies, and quotas. These strategies attempt to correct any inefficiency in the international market.
Currency as a Medium of Exchange Facilitating Trade
Money, which also functions as a unit of account and a store of value, is the most common medium of exchange, providing a variety of methods for fund transfers between buyers and sellers, including cash, ACH transfers, credit cards, and wired funds. Money’s attribute as a store of value also assures that funds received by sellers as payment for goods or services can be used to make purchases of equivalent value in the future.
Cashless trades involving the exchange of goods or services between parties are referred to as barter transactions. While barter is often associated with primitive or undeveloped societies, these transactions are also used by large corporations and individuals as a means of gaining goods in exchange for excess, underutilized or unwanted assets. For example, in the 1970s, PepsiCo Inc. set up a barter agreement with the Russian government to trade cola syrup for Stolichnaya vodka. In 1990, the deal was expanded to $3 billion dollars and included 10 Russian-built ships, which PepsiCo leased or sold in the years following the agreement.