Operationalization of Theory is Never Straightforward
Over at EconLog, Pierre Lemieux points us to a recent op-ed by Trump economic advisor Peter Navarro. Pierre writes:
The keystone of his claims in this op-ed is the distinction between “pure free trader” and “fair, reciprocal and balanced trader.” The latter concept is at best underdetermined and at worst absurd. There have been as many definitions of “fair” as there have been political theorists and moral philosophers. Is it “fair trade” that American producers have a big advantage as they master the language of international trade better than their German or Vietnamese competitors? Isn’t that the sort of “trade barrier” that Navarro said should be compensated by a tariff in order for trade to be “reciprocal”? Reciprocity is usually a mere excuse for protectionism.
This is a point I routinely make in my classes when I lecture on supposed exceptions to free trade and operationalizing these exceptions. In theory, it is easy to design a policy where some “unfair advantage” is corrected. In reality, identifying these barriers is difficult.
My favorite example is rule of law. The US, compared to many countries, is very non-corrupt. We have a good judicial system that is relatively unbiased and even-handed. Contracts are reasonably enforced. Bribes aren’t really required to do business. All this reduces the cost of doing business in the US compared to other countries, which is why many firms do business here.
Since the judicial system is run by the government, one can argue it counts as a “subsidy” to reduce costs for businesses. Thus, an analyst could use rule of law in the US to justify tariffs against US products.
Is that also what Navarro means when he demands reciprocity? What about our relatively educated workforce (also subsidized, BTW)? Or our relatively good infrastructure? All of these would justify, in theory, subsidies on American products by foreign nations given the loose, vague, and indeterminate language of Navarro. The theory gives no guidance about what is counted and what is not, which means it is left up to the analyst. Thus, talking about “fair trade” is not as precise as Navarro, or theory, makes it seem.
Once we begin moving away from theory and into interventionist policy making in the real world, the operationalization of the theory gets very loose very quickly. How things are defined is not straightforward and precise. Calculating “optimal” tariffs will depend crucially on the assumptions and definitions of the analyst. What Peter Navarro considers “reciprocity” may not be considered so by Donald Trump, or by you and I. Indeed, for certain definitions of reciprocity (each as theoretically legitimate as the one Navarro uses), one can argue that any Chinese trade barriers on US goods are “fair and balanced” and the actions of the Trump Administration are unfair trade!
At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux highlights a similar theme put forth by our colleague Bryan Caplan and his co-author Zach Weinersmith:
The right question to ask is never “Will it be perfect?” But “Will it be better than the alternative?”
The problem with perfection is not only that men are not angels and fallible. Were it only that, then it would simply be a matter of creating an algorithm for a machine to optimize and then just internalize any externalities. The problem with perfection includes actually defining perfection. A blackboard model of equilibrium is only “perfect” in the eyes of the analyst. Assumptions we have to make to get there are enormous and context-dependent (for more on this point, see Hayek’s 1937 paper “Economics and Knowledge.” Also valuable is James Buchanan’s discussion in Chapter 1 of LSE Essays on Cost). Thus, even determining what policy should be will depend heavily on the assumptions of the analyst (note this lesson holds over from my blog post “Does Economics Imply Liberalism?”. This is all the more reason why it is important to focus on obtainable alternatives as opposed to idealized outcomes.
None of this implies radical anarchism or that policymakers should be paralyzed with fear (although I am sure people will use the arguments here to justify those stances). Rather, what this is to say is that discussions of ideal economic policy are not straightforward, that there is, as Ronald Coase wrote paraphrasing Frank Knight: “[P]roblems of welfare economics must ultimately dissolve into a study of aesthetics and morals.”