Teson and Klick on Global Justice and Trade

Josh Wright —  26 October 2007

Larry Solum points to Fernando Teson and Jonathan Klick’s (both of FSU College of Law) Global Justice and Trade: A Puzzling Omission.  It is a thoughtful and provocative paper.  Teson and Klick motivate the paper as an attempt to address the failure of philosophers and human rights scholars not to advocate free trade as a way to improve the welfare of the poor.  But as this excerpt from the end of the abstract suggests, the paper is more ambitious than that:

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.

Some preliminary reactions to the paper appear below the fold.

Teson and Klick provide a useful summary of their argument toward the end of the paper (p. 80).  I’m certainly favorably inclined to the message in the part of this paper that makes the case that free trade can and should be included as part of any theory of global justice or human rights.  Teson and Klick do a wonderful job presenting an objective and dispassionate survey of the vast theoretical and empirical literature, pointing out its weaknesses, and coming to some conclusions about our state of economic knowledge on the subject.  This first part is no doubt the most important part of the article and is an important and thoughtful contribution to the literature.  Of course, I’m also an economist and so maybe not the marginal consumer of their argument.  I didn’t need any convincing that free markets help the poor. 

The second part of the article is an attempt to explain why we find ourselves in the current state of affairs where this literature is ignored by scholars in other areas.  Teson & Klick offer a “discourse failure” hypothesis for the failure of these scholars to advocate free trade as part of an agenda to improve the welfare of the poor:

Discourse failure is the public display of political positions that are traceable to truth-insensitive processes. A truth-insensitive process is one that disregards the best available reasons, understood as those that define the status quaestionis in the relevant reliable scholarly discipline –in our case, international economics. In general, discourse failure occurs as the result of the mutually reinforcing interaction between the public’s rational ignorance (their incentives not to be politically well informed), and the politicians’ posturing for political gain. Sometimes, as in this case, the dynamics of discourse failure afflicts academic scholarship as well. 

The discourse failure hypothesis is a potential explanation of the disconnect between the economics literature and the claims (or silence on these issues) made by philosophers in this area. The most plausible alternative hypotheses, that prestigious scholars would be unaware of the economics literature or find it so unpersuasive that they feel they can ignore it without explanation, defies belief. A full demonstration of this thesis exceeds the scope of this article but, at any rate, our substantive argument (that any theory of global justice as well as any defense of socio-economic rights requires supporting free trade) stands on its own, independent of the discourse failure hypothesis.

I found the “discourse failure” hypothesis (rational ignorance meets rent-seeking) explaining why economists have not succeeded in getting other scholars to embrace free markets to be the most fascinating part of the paper.  I’d like to see more on this before I was convinced that the current state of affairs is the result of discourse failure — though I have no reason to believe it does not play an important role.  I can see where this sort of failure would be common in the public discourse, i.e. the widespread support for price-gouging legislation sounds like a paradigmatic example of discourse failure.  But what incentives to serious, intelligent, and sophisticated scholars in these fields have to ignore the economics literature?  I can think of a few, but nothing as strong as re-election for a politician.  Isn’t another alternative hypothesis that economists have failed to market our message to other disciplines and must share the burden here?  Just a few thoughts.  Please do go read the paper.