Tag Archives: the armchair economist

Explaining Free Trade in Under Three Minutes

Sometimes, the fastest, most effective way to explain economics is to tell a story. One of the best-done examples is in Steven Landsburg’s book The Armchair Economist, where he tells David Friedman’s “Iowa Car Crop” story to get readers to think about trade (see pp. 197-99).

[T]here are two technologies for producing automobiles in America. One is to manufacture them in Detroit, and the other is to grow them in Iowa.

Okay… how does that work?

First you plant seeds, which are the raw material from which automobiles are constructed. You wait a few months until wheat appears. Then you harvest the wheat, load it onto ships, and sail the ships eastward into the Pacific Ocean. After a few months, the ships reappear with Toyotas on them.

Sounds almost magical. But it happens millions of times every day. The lesson is that trade is about specialization. A farmer doesn’t know how to build a car. But he can still have one by sticking to his specialty – growing wheat. He can trade his surplus to other people who do nothing but specialize in building cars.

This cuts both ways. Most factory workers don’t know a thing about farming. But by concentrating on building cars, they eat far better than if they grew their own wheat. The nature of trade is that everyone wins when they specialize. The only limit on specialization is the size of the market.

Restrictions on trade – tariffs, quotas, antidumping duties — shrink that market. And by shrinking the market, they limit specialization, which is the source of all prosperity. It’s good to grow cars in Iowa.

The lesson doesn’t apply to just wheat and cars. It applies to everything. Tom Palmer from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation makes that clear as day in this excellent video. If you want to learn the meaning of free trade in under three minutes, this is as good as it gets.