The relevance of going alone

Simon Lester inquires about unilateral trade liberalization:

Where exactly would be today in terms of free trade, without international agreements or organizations? My best guess is that trade barriers would be much higher, but is there some small chance that if we had spent the last 50 years talking about tariff cuts as something other than “concessions,” we would actually have made more progress?

“Much higher” may be too strong a statement. Remember that it’s surprisingly difficult to find evidence that WTO membership liberalizes trade using a naive indicator like formal membership.

For developing countries, a World Bank number I’ve often seen attributes two-thirds of their liberalization in recent decades to unilateral actions.

It’s also worth noting that most of the tariffs cuts being discussed at the WTO’s Doha Round of negotiations concerned bound rates that were significantly above the current applied rates.

If unilateral trade liberalization resulted in respectable outcomes while multilateral fora captured the attention of most policymakers, then perhaps fifty years of thinking differently would have paid significant dividends.

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