November 5, 2017

QotD: Explaining comparative advantage

Filed under: Asia, Britain, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Actually, it’s dead easy. No math, no arithmetic. It is in fact the soul of common sense. But you have to understand that comparative advantage is the principle of cooperation, as against competition. The word “advantage” gets us thinking of competition, which is perfectly reasonable in our own individual lives — we do compete with other businesses or other writers or whomever. But the system as a whole, whatever it is, does well of course by cooperating, in business or science or family life. It’s not all we do, admittedly. We also compete. But within a household or a company or a world economy the job is to produce a result in the best way, cooperatively. If you are running a household or a sports team or a world economy, you would want to assign roles to the various contributors to the common purpose sensibly. It turns out to be precisely on grounds of comparative advantage.

Consider Mum and 12-year old Oliver, who are to spend Saturday morning tidying up the garage. Oliver is incompetent in everything compared with Mum. He cannot sweep the floor as quickly as she can, and he is truly hopeless in sorting through the masses of rubbish that garages grow spontaneously. Mum, that is, has an absolute advantage in every sub-task in tidying up the garage. Oliver is like Bangladesh, which is poor because it makes everything — knit goods and medical reactors — with more labor and capital than Britain does. Its output per person is 8.4 percent of what it is in Britain. So too Oliver.

What to do? Let Mum do everything? No, of course not. That would not produce the most tidied garage in a morning’s work. Oliver should obviously be assigned to the broom, in which his disadvantage compared with Mum is comparatively least — hence “comparative advantage.” An omniscient central planner of the garage-tidying would assign Mum and Oliver just that way. So would an omniscient central planner of world production and trade. In the event, there’s no need for an international planner. The market, if Trump does not wreck it, does the correct assignment of tasks worldwide. Bangladesh does not sit down and let Britain make everything merely because Britain is “competitive” absolutely in everything. And in fact Bangladesh’s real income has been rising smartly in recent years precisely because it has specialized in knit goods. It has closed its ears to the siren song of protecting its medical reactor industry. It gets the equipment for cancer treatment from Britain.

Comparative advantage means assigning resources of labor and capital to the right jobs, whatever the absolute productivity of the economy. It applies within a single family, or within a single company, or within Britain, or within the world economy, all of which are made better off by such obvious efficiencies. Following comparative advantage enriches us all, because it gets the job done best. Policies commonly alleged to achieve absolute advantage lead to protection — that is, extortion, crony capitalism, and the rest in aid of “competitiveness.”

Dierdre N. McCloskey, “A Punter’s Guide to a True but Non-Obvious Proposition in Economics”, 2017-10-16.

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