AFTER the second world war, the leaders of the Western world tried to build institutions to prevent the horrors of the preceding decades from recurring. They sought to foster both prosperity and interdependence, to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”. Their work has borne fruit. There has been no armed conflict in western Europe since. Expanded global trade has raised incomes around the world. Yet, as the Brexit vote demonstrates, globalisation now seems to be receding. Most economists have been blindsided by the backlash. A few saw it coming. It is worth studying their reasoning, in order to work out whether a retrenchment is inevitable or might be avoided.
Even economists realise that free trade can be a hard sell politically. The political economy of trade is treacherous: its benefits, though substantial, are diffuse, but its costs are often concentrated, giving those affected a strong incentive to push for protectionism. Since 1776, when Adam Smith published “The Wealth of Nations”, those pressing for global openness have won more battles than they have lost. Yet opposition to globalisation seldom disappears, and often…Continue reading