Global Justice and Trade: A Puzzling Omission


Economists generally agree that free trade leads to economic growth. This proposition is supported both by theoretical models and empirical data. Further, while the empirical evidence is more limited on this question, the general consensus among economists holds that trade restrictions are likely to hurt the poor. Even if the latter consensus turns out to be wrong, if free trade leads to superior growth, governments would have more resources to redistribute to the poor. It is surprising then that philosophers and human rights scholars do not advocate liberalizing trade as a way to improve the welfare of the poor as a class. While many scholars in these fields are silent with respect to the effect of free trade on the poor, some actually argue that liberalized trade is harmful for the poor, contrary to the claims of economists. In this article, we argue that any serious scholar concerned with the plight of the poor needs to address the theory and evidence regarding the effects of trade liberalization on economic growth, suggesting that the standard policy prescriptions of the philosophers and human rights scholars are, at best, of second order concern and, at worst, likely to be counterproductive in terms of improving the welfare of the poor.