University of Southampton General Departmental Seminar
On December 7th 2016 at the invitation of the C2G2 Centre I delivered a paper to the General Departmental Seminar of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. The paper was entitled, 'The Politics of Silence in Liberal Economic Theory: What David Ricardo's Theory of Global Free Trade Still Does Not Tell Us 200 Years On'.
Abstract: David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage is now two centuries old, but it remains at the heart of economists’ theories of international trade. It also continues to provide the underlying economic ethics for liberal IPE. Ricardo’s numerical illustration of the mutually shared gains from specialisation and trade featured a productively superior hypothetical ‘Portugal’ and a productively inferior hypothetical ‘England’. Yet the historical back-story of actual eighteenth-century trading relations between the two countries reveals Portugal’s repeated struggles to meet its treaty obligations to the English in the context of the European struggle for empire. Those difficulties persisted even when it harnessed its (less profitable) commercial trade to (much more profitable) slave trading practices. Ricardo’s account of the purely market-based logic of comparative advantage writes out of economic history the centrality to the early English and Portuguese experience of ‘free’ trade of both imperial wars and African slavery. Given this historical back-story, the debates about international trade that will follow in the wake of both the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory are unlikely to ever tell the full story. There is a very good chance that they will continue to revolve around assertions and counter-assertions related to Ricardo’s original claims in favour of free trade. Equally they are also likely to remain silent on the historical experiences that Ricardo wished away in saying that England and Portugal would be best advised to continue their existing commercial relationships as a matter of pure economic logic. This paper will explore where those silences came from and also explain why they remain so important today.