The arguments about free trade, tariffs and trade wars are a cyclical tussle between economists and politicians. It is easy to assume that by restricting international trade, one country can improve its economic standing over another. The staging and winning of a "trade war" become political bargaining chips with voters especially during economic downturns. The economists’ argument that free trade benefits all sides, based on the theory of national comparative advantage (we all benefit if each country does what it is best at) fails to cut through the rhetoric of national protectionism that politicians reach for.
This failure of economics to explain and win the argument of free trade is partly due to the lack of a convincing, tangible outcome, but is also rooted in the discipline's failure to recognize that the comparative advantage of nations is just a theoretical construct: nations do not trade with each other, international firms do.
In this insightful exposition of the issues at stake, Keith Tribe looks at the historical origins of the free trade debacle, showing how the protectionist arguments raised by Trump and Brexiteers alike seek to reconstruct the present according to a vision of the past, and yet, this past is little appreciated or understood. It is only through a better understanding of the history of protectionism and free trade that we can make better trade policy in the present.
Keith Tribe taught economics at Keele University in the 1980s and 1990s before taking early retirement in 2002. Since then he has continued to write, translate and teach. He is currently teaching the history of economics at the University of Birmingham. His books include Governing Economy (1988), Strategies of Economic Order (1995/2007) and The Economy of the Word (2015).