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Comparative Advantage: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed

Many economists will tell you that the most important principle in economics is comparative advantage — the idea that it is expensive to grow oranges in Alaska or to flood rice paddies in Saudi Arabia, so Alaska and Saudi Arabia should import oranges and rice, respectively, and base local production on the advantages of local conditions. We got this idea from classical economist David Ricardo, who famously observed in 1821 that England and Portugal would both be wealthier if Portugal exported its wine and imported England’s textiles, and vice versa.

Comparative advantage is not a separate concept at all. It is simply an explanation of the implications of the division of labor and opportunity cost. 

Ricardo’s principle even demonstrated the advantages of trading with those who are less productive at everything. For example, my wife is an attorney. She is also a fast and accurate typist. Yet she hires a secretary who is considerably slower at typing. Secretaries get paid less than attorneys, so if my wife specializes in law and the secretary specializes in typing, my wife can earn more for her firm and a secretary gets a job. Both end up better off. That’s true even though my wife is better at both jobs: comparative advantage means trade helps everyone.

Division of Labor Trumps Comparative Advantage

The problem is that fixed comparative advantage — derived from weather, culture, and location — is vanishing in the modern world. Ricardo’s classical formulation leaves no space for human creativity, no role for division of labor, and no room for innovation to affect the dynamics of cost.

So economists have it wrong, as my friend Russ Roberts argued in 2010. The most important principle in…

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