Chapter 1: Introduction: contesting the conservative antinomies of trade theory
International trade matters profoundly and provokes furious controversy. The overwhelming majority of professional economists champion free trade. At the same time a vociferous minority sees free trade as unfair trade, insisting the apparent freedoms are illusory and that trade relations are exploitative. On both sides there are powerful scholarly literatures. The theory of comparative advantage, in particular, has occupied a crucial place in the liberal canon for nearly 200 years and remains the cornerstone of mainstream international economics (Ricardo 1951; Krugman and Obstfeld 2003). It is the starting point for the World Trade Organization (WTO 2014) and the basis on which Bhagwati (2002) can dismiss opponents as impassioned but irrational. For orthodoxy, trade extends the efficiency of markets across borders. For Marshall, one of the founders of mainstream neo-classical economics, trade may even provide the very ‘causes which determine the economic progress of nations’ (2009: 225). Some of the critical ideas have fallen out of fashion since the 1970s but many of the central insights are still defended, particularly in relation to persistent problems of development in the poorest parts of the world (Bracking and Harrison 2003; Bush 2004; Bieler and Morton 2014). There are powerful arguments that it is state strategies, rather than free markets, that enable some countries to escape poverty and underdevelopment (Chang 2002). Again, several writers go further and find in trade the fundamental causes of international wealth and poverty (Emmanual 1972; Wallerstein 1974). There is a lot at stake.