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Leland Yeager on Trade

Want to read an economist’s economist?  Want an example of scholarly writing that is crystal clear?  Want to understand better the case for free trade?  If so, you can do no better than to read this 1954 monograph — Free Trade: America’s Opportunity — written by my great teacher Leland Yeager.  And even though it’s now more than a half-century old, it remains vibrant, relevant, and timely.

Here’s a small sampling of the text:

The economic case for Free Trade is quite the same as the case for technological progress. Both increase the output of useful goods and services that a country can get from its labor and resources. “The general case for freedom in international exchange is like the case against putting sand in the gears of a machine.”4 In particular, Free Trade, like improved transportation, promotes interregional specialization and increases through trade the results that a country gets from its productive powers.

Iowa raises corn and hogs, Virginia grows tobacco, and Massachusetts makes shoes. Iowans get their tobacco and shoes from Virginia and Massachusetts, paying in part with money earned by selling corn and hogs outside the state. The people of Virginia and Massachusetts likewise import many products, paying in part with products they do make. Why does such trade take place? Why, instead, don’t the people of each state make at home all the things they possibly could? Clearly, because that would be wasteful. Everybody understands the benefits of specialization and trade among regions of a single country.

The benefits of specialization and trade among countries are no different. International trade is a subject of special interest only because migration is more restricted between than within countries, because there are often better statistics on international than domestic trade, because special study is necessary to understand the use of different currencies in international trade, and because government interferences with international trade raise issues requiring special discussion. These minor differences do not change the fact that international trade merely extends the principles of interregional trade. A boundary line does not affect the basic principle: specialization and trade benefit the people who take part.


Free Traders should speak out bluntly. They should argue not for lower tariffs, not for reciprocal trade agreements, not for freer trade, but for Free Trade—the complete end to government interference with imports and exports.

This monograph is one of my very favorites.  I’m grateful to Liberty Fund and to David Hart, who runs Liberty Fund‘s wonderful Online Library of Liberty, for putting Leland’s monograph on-line.


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