Bhagwati: A consensus, not a club

Dani Rodrik says Jagdish Bhagwati, once dubbed “the slickest pen in the West” by a Financial Times book review, occasionally makes him cringe:

It’s as if he has an evil twin that sometimes takes control of his writing hand. Recent example in point: his op-ed in the FT where he takes Alan Blinder to task for what Bhagwati claims is Blinder’s about-face on trade. “We free traders,” Bhagwati writes, “have no problem with him as he backs into our corner.”

“We” free traders? “Our” corner? If you wanted evidence that orthodox trade economists form an exclusive club and speak in a single voice, could you get any better than this?

Context matters. Bhagwati’s FT column argues that “free trade is alive and well among economists.” He attacks suggestions of a crisis of faith amongst free traders by saying that “we free traders” constitute the vast majority of economists and describing past episodes when “false notes of alarm were sounded over free trade.”

Bhagwati defends liberal trade policies by noting that the celebrated ‘dissenters’ he describes (Krugman’s new trade theory, Samuelson’s 2004 JEP article, Blinder’s Foreign Affairs piece) never advocated protectionist measures. He objects to those who use their work as arguments for less liberal policies. This view is shared by Greg Mankiw:

After the Blinder-Bhagwati debate last week, there was a dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club at which Ben Friedman asked Alan a good question: Now that Alan has had this epiphany about offshoring, does he favor economic policies any different than he favored a decade ago? Alan thought about the question for a moment and then said no. I found that answer reassuring. My fear is that many politicians reading Alan’s work on offshore outsourcing will not come to the same conclusion.

So when Bhagwati welcomes Blinder back to “our corner,” he portrays him as a lonely exception, thus painting a picture of consensus (a word Bhagwati uses three times), not a club. I would expect Rodrik to object to that much more.

[For a longer version of Bhagwati’s article, see his lecture at the WTO on Monday.]