Friday, December 2, 2011

Rethinking Trade and Commercial Policy at the University of Utah

Peter Ho, from the University of Denver, gave a nice and stimulating talk based on his recently published book. He tries to rethink classical political economics views on trade, reviewing the contributions of Smith, Ricardo and Stuart Mill, and the trade policy advise that derives from it. Without having read the book, the presentation suggests a sort of institutionalist approach to the critique of the mainstream.

One thing that did strike me out as peculiar to the presentation, but which may not be reflected in the book, was the critique of the mainstream view of trade on the basis of Ricardo/Mill rather than the Heckscher-Ohlin (HO) model. Note that comparative advantage in the HO story is associated to full utilization of resources and relative prices determined by scarcity (for a critique see here). That's clearly not the case in Ricardo.

Also, the Ricardian (properly understood as part of the surplus approach) story is less about the benefits of trade in general, and more about which social class benefits and which one loses from protection (see my discussion here).

One last point about the talk, that I would have liked to discuss with Peter (I had to leave for a defense) was on Mill. He was a peculiar author in-between classical political economy and marginalism, and his contributions are more problematic to properly understand than authors like Ricardo and Marshall. In fact, Mill is a key author to understand the break between the surplus approach and marginalism. As noted by Krishna Bharadwaj, what was Ricardian in Mill's theories does not appear in Marshall's work, and what is proto-Marshallian in Mill's ideas was not part of Ricardo's views of political economy. In that sense, while I'm comfortable with a Smith/Ricardo approach to trade, I'm less keen about adding Stuart Mill to the mix.

PS: I should have noted that his discussion of trade policy builds on Hamilton, List, Prebisch, Myrdal, Singer and others, like the work of Ha Joon-Chang. A paper of mine on a similar subject is the entry on Export Promotion for the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by Sandy Darity (here).


  1. Your passing thoughts on Mill are intriguing. Perhaps because of the important role that Mill's father James played in getting Ricardo to write down his thoughts, I've tended to see him as a late contributor to that tradition, a more reserved Henry George. But I've never made it through his whole book. I'm curious to learn more.

  2. Stuart Mill, like his father, was a confused/confusing author from my point of view. The father was a true methodological individualist and Utilitarian in ways that are not compatible with Ricardo. I wrote the entry for the International Encyclopedia on Social Sciences on Mill, link here