Misleading metaphors


In pushing for free-market policies that make life more difficult for poor countries, the bad samaritans frequently deploy the rhetoric of the “level playing field.” They argue that developing countries should not be allowed to use extra policy tools for protection, subsidies and regulation, as these constitute unfair competition. Who can disagree?

Well, we all should, if we want to build an international system that promotes economic development. A level playing field leads to unfair competition when the players are unequal. Most sports have strict separation by age and gender, while boxing, wrestling and weightlifting have weight classes, which are often divided very finely. How is it that we think a bout between people with more than a couple of kilos’ weight difference is unfair, and yet we accept that the US and Honduras should compete economically on equal terms?

Sports contests are zero-sum games; economic exchanges are not. I would be surprised to read a sports metaphor that provided more economic insight than confusion. Metaphors like competitiveness are dangerous. Economists like Chang shouldn’t use rhetoric that compares economies and athletes, and free-marketers should be chastised for introducing ‘level playing field’ metaphors too.

1 thought on “Misleading metaphors

  1. Jim

    I agree it’s not a great metaphor. I’d be more inclined to compare the issue to education: we don’t expect children to compete on the job market as soon as they’re physically able, because we know it’s better to protect them from competition while they acquire skills. Similarly enough, it takes time to learn how to produce higher-value products at the industrial level, so why shouldn’t governments be able to protect certain industries/firms while that happens?

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