John Hawkins of Right Wing News managed to score an exclusive interview with Milton Friedman, one of the world’s premier economic minds and one of the greatest supporters of human liberty in the 20th Century. There’s way too much good stuff in the interview to even hit the highlights, but I found this exchange especially illuminating.
John Hawkins: Let me ask you about this — what do you say to people who claim that free trade will eventually lead to high unemployment in the US as large numbers of jobs move to cheaper labor markets overseas?
Milton Friedman: Well, they only consider half of the problem. If you move jobs overseas, it creates incomes and dollars overseas. What do they do with that dollar income? Sooner or later it will be used to purchase US goods and that produces jobs in the United States.
In fact, all of the progress that the US has made over the last couple of centuries has come from unemployment. It has come from figuring out how to produce more goods with fewer workers, thereby releasing labor to be more productive in other areas. It has never come about through permanent unemployment, but temporary unemployment, in the process of shifting people from one area to another.
When the United States was formed in 1776, it took 19 people on the farm to produce enough food for 20 people. So most of the people had to spend their time and efforts on growing food. Today, it’s down to 1% or 2% to produce that food. Now just consider the vast amount of supposed unemployment that was produced by that. But there wasn’t really any unemployment produced. What happened was that people who had formerly been tied up working in agriculture were freed by technological developments and improvements to do something else. That enabled us to have a better standard of living and a more extensive range of products.
The same thing is happening around the world. China has been growing very rapidly in recent years. That’s because they shifted from a very inefficient method of agricultural production to something that comes close to the equivalent of private ownership of the land and agriculture. As a result, they’ve been able to produce a lot more with many fewer workers and that has released workers who have come into the cities and have been able to work in industry and other areas and China has been having a very rapid increase in income.
Indeed, much of the supposed loss of manufacturing jobs to trade is really unrelated to trade. The fact is, increases in efficiency will cause a temporary lack of jobs as the economy shifts to different areas, Those who complain about the effects of trade on jobs are about as correct as the fears of computerization in 1957’s Desk Set – except nowhere near as entertaining.