Can Free Trade Raise Prices?

You may have heard that Dani Rodrik has his own blog. This entry makes an important point about the debate over free trade:

Advocates of globalization love to argue that free trade lowers prices, and the argument seems sensible enough. Think of all the cheap goods from China that we can buy at Wal-Mart. But anyone who understands comparative advantage knows that free trade affects relative prices, not the price level (the latter being the province of macro and monetary factors). When a country opens up to trade (or liberalizes its trade), it is the relative price of imports that comes down; by necessity, the relative prices of its exports must go up! Consumers are better off to the extent that their consumption basket is weighted towards importables, but we cannot always rely on this to be the case. Consider your typical Argentinian for example, who consumes a lot of wheat and beef. Since these are export products for Argentina, free trade implies a rise in the relative price of the Argentine consumption basket. (The gains from trade are still there, of course, but they derive from the usual allocative efficiency improvements, not from lower prices across the board.) And in the U.S., the Wal-Mart effect has to be qualified to take into account the fact that the relative price of the goods that the U.S. exports (including for example agricultural commodities) is higher than it would have been absent trade. Similarly, when the U.S. gets better market access abroad for its agricultural exports (a key demand under the Doha round), you can be sure that this will raise domestic prices for these goods, not lower them.

On the rare occasion when President Bush’s rhetoric actually makes sense, he alludes to the gains from free trade in terms of increased demand for U.S. exporters such as our agricultural sector. Increased demand leads to higher income for those American suppliers in these sectors even though it also means I’ll likely have to pay a bit more for their products when I visit my local Ralphs.