WASHINGTON — Sooner or later, and the later the better, the president’s wandering attention will flit, however briefly, to the subject of trade. So, let us try to think about the problem as he seems to: Wily cosmopolitans beyond our borders are insinuating across our borders goods that Americans, perhaps misled by British economist David Ricardo, persist in purchasing.
Exactly 200 years ago, Ricardo published “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,” explaining the doctrine of comparative advantage. Paul Samuelson, a leading 20th-century economist, cited this doctrine when challenged to name a social-science proposition that is both true and not obvious. British journalist Matt Ridley calls Ricardo’s insight “a thoroughly counterintuitive idea” that “takes Adam Smith’s division of labor one step further.” It explains why free trade benefits every country, even relatively advanced England trading cloth for wine from relatively undeveloped Portugal, which has a comparative advantage making that product.
Seven years after Ricardo’s book appeared, Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote, “Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is in almost every country unpopular.” It certainly is with the Trump administration, which bristles with chest-thumping anti-cosmopolitans who are too flinty to be bamboozled by foreigners like Ricardo and others who deny that trade is a zero-sum game.
Foreigners, however, have their uses. After…
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