I just saw this response from Joel Trachtman to my column "Too Late To Compensate Free Trade's Losers." Trachtman argues that "the fundamental problem of winners and losers will not be solved by these changes."
I do not disagree. But the fundamental political problem with trade is not there are winners and losers -- the domestic market generates much greater job churn and dislocation than trade does. It is that it generates unfair redistribution, or at least redistribution that can be legitimately perceived as unfair, when goods cross jurisdictional boundaries.
As I explain here:
It's important to distinguish between two versions of an argument as to why trade may be problematic from a social or political perspective.
Some suggest trade is problematic because it redistributes income. The basis for that claim is true, but trivial. Pretty much everything else that happens in a market economy somehow redistributes income. Technology and market competition are the sources of endless churns in an economy. Moreover, plenty of other things, including skill-biased innovation and minimum-wage laws, have vastly greater effects on income distribution than trade.
So it makes very little sense to set international trade apart and decouple it from other domains or approaches for dealing with inequality in labor markets at large (progressive tax systems, active labor market policies, employment-friendly macro policies, etc.). Imports from Germany may adversely affect domestic companies that are displaced, but there's no reason to treat the people who lose out any differently from workers who are adversely affected by, say, technological innovation. There is a coherent justification for compensating the losers of free trade for reasons of solidarity and equity, but the justification would apply in the case of innovation. Consequently, the preferred remedies should be the same as well.
That brings us to a different social and political objection to trade — that trade violates norms embodied in our institutional arrangements. The suggestion here is that trade may undercut the social bargains struck within a nation and embedded in its laws and regulations. [In this case] compensating the losers would be beside the point, because what is at stake is the surreptitious modification of the rules of the game — the undermining of domestic social bargains through the back door. Trade is not merely a market relationship, but an intervention into domestic institutions and an instrument for reconfiguring them to the detriment of certain groups. It would be entirely legitimate to respond to such an injury by directly curtailing the trade flows that have the alleged effect. After all, this is no different from keeping out imports that violate, say, domestic health and safety regulations, which most countries already do.
As Pierre Rosanvallon puts it, inequality is felt most acutely when citizens believe that the rules apply differently to different people." It is not inequality per se that people mind; it is unfairness.
This also relates to a question I get very often. If trade is apparently a small component of the overall impact on labor markets, why focus at all on globalization or devise special remedies for globalization. The answer is that it is not the overall quantitative impact that often matters; it is the normative filter through which those impacts are viewed.