The "free trade reduces prices" fallacy, yet again. This time the culprit is Tyler Cowen. In his column for the New York Times today, Cowen argues that freer trade in food commodities such as rice would boost global supplies and help reduce prices. He is probably right about the first, but not about the second. The effect of freer trade on domestic food prices depends on whether a country is a food importer or exporter. Freer trade would reduce prices of food (relative to other prices) only in countries that are food importers. Food exporters would experience a rise in the relative price of food, and there is simply no way of escaping that reality. The economics of what Rodrik is saying are indisputable: if we go from no trade to free trade, the exported good's relative price will rise in the exporting country and fall in the importing country.
However, it's not at all clear to me that Tyler ever says free trade lowers prices for everyone. The closest he comes is in the first paragraph:
Rising food prices mean hunger for millions and also political unrest, as has already been seen in Haiti, Egypt and Ivory Coast. Yes, more expensive energy and bad weather are partly at fault, but the real question is why adjustment hasn’t been easier. A big problem is that the world doesn’t have enough trade in foodstuffs.
So, maybe you could interpret that as being wrong. However, it surely does not say "trade lowers the price of the traded good for everyone", which is the error Rodrik claims he is making.
For me, it's too vague to make any claim about what economic theory or fallacy is underlying the paragraph. As it is the opening of an op ed, I suspect its main intent is to get our attention.
The article is actually about how the lack of free markets, market friendly government policies, and supporting infrastructure in a lot of developing countries can be extremely counterproductive in an ever more interconnected world, using rice as an example.
An increasing percentage of the world’s production, including that for agriculture, comes from poor countries. Over all, that’s good for rich countries, which can focus on creating other goods and services, and for the poor countries, which are producing more wealth. But it can slow the speed of adjustment to changing global conditions.
For example, if demand for rice rises, Vietnamese farmers — who remain shackled by many longstanding regulations of communism — aren’t always able to respond quickly. They don’t even have complete freedom to ship and trade rice within their own country.
Poorer countries also tend to be the most protectionist. To make matters worse, about half of the global rice trade is run by politicized state trading boards.
The reality is that many of today’s commodity shortages, including that for oil, occur because ever more production and trade take place in relatively inefficient and inflexible countries. We’re accustomed to the response times of Silicon Valley, but when it comes to commodities production, many of the relevant institutions abroad have only one foot in the modern age. In other words, the world’s commodities table is very far from flat.
Many poor countries, including some in Africa, could be growing much more rice than they do now. The major culprits include corruption in the rice supply chain, poorly conceived irrigation systems, terrible or even nonexistent roads, insecure property rights, ill-considered land reforms, and price controls on rice.
The ability of a country to grow rice depends not just on its weather, but also on its institutions. Burma, now Myanmar, was once the world’s leading rice exporter, but it is now an economic basket case and many of its people go hungry.My own criticism of Tyler's piece would rely less on Heckscher-Ohlin and more on Pritchett: In terms of helping the world's poor, freer trade is a drop in the bucket compared to allowing increased labor mobility.
If you live in a country with "corruption, non-existent roads, insecure property rights and price controls" free trade is not going to help you. Leaving will help you. The best thing the rich countries could do for a Haitian or Egyptian would be to let them come and work in the rich world.