CRF Blog

Seminal Ideas in Economics: An inconvenient iota of truth

by David De La Torre

In An inconvenient iota of truth, the third in its series on seminal ideas in economics, The Economist looks at the Stolper-Samuelson theorem.

The paper was “remarkable”, according to Alan Deardorff of the University of Michigan, partly because it proved something seemingly obvious to non-economists: free trade with low-wage nations could hurt workers in a high-wage country. This commonsensical complaint had traditionally cut little ice with economists. They pointed out that poorly paid labour is not necessarily cheap, because low wages often reflect poor productivity — as Kaduna Textile Mills showed. The Stolper-Samuelson theorem, however, found “an iota of possible truth” (as Samuelson put it later) in the hoary argument that workers in rich countries needed protection from “pauper labour” paid a pittance elsewhere.

To understand why the theorem made a splash, it helps to understand the pool of received wisdom it disturbed. Economists had always known that tariffs helped the industries sheltered by them. But they were equally adamant that free trade benefited countries as a whole. David Ricardo showed in 1817 that a country could benefit from trade even if it did everything better than its neighbours. A country that is better at everything will still be “most better”, so to speak, at something. It should concentrate on that, Ricardo showed, importing what its neighbours do “least worse”. [more]

See the first two in the series:

George Akerlof’s 1970 paper, “The Market for Lemons”

Minsky’s moment