Free Trade, Specialization, and Economic Dynamism

Futuristic City - Coruscant

Futuristic City – Coruscant

Why do large companies exist? Some industries like film production used to be vertically integrated — that is, most aspects of production were completed by direct employees of the studio, with even screenwriters and actors under long-term contract. This allowed the studio to put together productions rapidly and under direct control, shooting on their own lots and cranking out enough product to keep costs down and quality up. Vertical integration kept down the costs of negotiating with each supplier / worker and guaranteed availability of unique resources, like the services of major stars and expensive soundstages.

The Hollywood studio system has since been broken up, and many productions are completed by dozens of business entities handling separate parts of the project. Agents and producers package projects and a thriving ecosystem of specialized contractors do much of the work; at the end of every special-effects blockbuster film you’ll see dozens of firms credited.

Big companies stay vertically integrated when a new product or industry takes off and there is limited support from outside contractors, or when legal and regulatory burdens make it difficult to reliably contract out parts of the work. In countries where influence with the government is the only way to operate without harassment, large firms that have apparently unrelated businesses under one ownership — conglomerates — are the most successful form. In South Korea, these firms (called chaebol[2]) were seen as national champions and had the political pull necessary to survive in a corrupt, influence-peddling environment; improvements in transparency and the curbing of corrupt influence after the Asian debt crisis of 1997 resulted in reform of the chaebol system and broke up the ownership of large segments of the Korean economy, which has improved the country’s growth record and competitiveness.

Mature industries with highly-developed contract labor markets tend to outsource many more functions, which lowers the carrying costs for the industry as a whole — an in-house special effects division, for example, will either be over- or under-utilized much of the time, and it’s a natural evolution from seeking outside business for slack periods to being spun off as an independent concern when there are large numbers of independent special effects firms with different areas of expertise. As a contracting market develops, it then becomes practical for even a small team to start their own firm, further atomizing the market.

The classic pamphlet “I, Pencil”[3] explains the story of the simple graphite-leaded wood pencil’s production as a mute symphony of coordination and cooperation by suppliers and producers who have organized spontaneously under the free market system to produce a product not one of them fully understands. All of its component materials and the machines needed to manufacture the pencil come from different suppliers who have developed the constituents independently, specializing in, say, the paint for the exterior, or the rubber eraser. Time and many instances of contracts fulfilled lead to trust between suppliers, and competitive markets hone each supplier’s quality and price to hold down the cost of the completed product.

What happens when trade barriers go up? Say the best producer of rubber pencil erasers is in Malaysia, and a protectionist Congress slaps a high tariff on products from Malaysia….

The price landscape the US-based pencil manufacturer sees changes when Malaysian erasers leap in price because of the new tariffs, and a US-based supplier now appears to offer a better deal on erasers, so the manufacturer orders from them instead. Unfortunately the unfamiliar supplier has a lower quality product at a higher price, and the pencil manufacturer and the new eraser supplier spend days negotiating payments and terms. The resulting pencils have to be priced higher and consumers notice the erasers don’t work very well, and begin to consider other brands of pencil instead….

Relatively free trade allows multinational networks of the best and most-efficient suppliers to capture the benefits of specialization globally. The world’s auto industry, for example, benefitted greatly in the end by combining innovations from Japan, Germany, and the US, and modern autos manufactured anywhere today source parts from multiple countries — which becomes most noticeable when, for example, the dangerous failure of airbag components made in Mexico by major supplier Takata of Japan spreads to include recalls of upwards of fifty million cars from at least twelve different car companies[4]. Atypical disasters aside, the availability of low-cost and reliable components from overseas has brought US-manufactured cars up to increasingly-high global standards and allowed US final assembly plants to remain competitive despite their higher labor costs.

When trade barriers are lowered, there is often short-term pain for less-competitive, formerly-protected industries, as there was for the US auto giants in making the transition to a global market. But high trade barriers and closed markets mean higher prices and a lack of competition to keep the domestic industry honest — and if the protected products are a large component of national consumption and a capital good necessary for other industries as well, like autos and trucks, the entire economy of the protectionist country will grow more slowly and become less competitive in international trade. A return to high trade barriers for the US, like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930,[5] would lower the quality and raise the prices of many US-made goods, making them less competitive in global trade even if no other countries retaliated by raising their tariffs. Just because there are still countries with high tariff and other barriers doesn’t mean the US, as one of the greatest beneficiaries of the global free trade system, should also shoot itself in the foot. In the 1930s countries stumbled into a worsening Depression by such short-sighted actions which harmed everyone, and contributed to the strains resulting in WWII.

Similarly, it is damaging when any government acts to limit or over-regulate trade between its citizens and its companies. The US Constitution addressed the issue of trade barriers between the various States by giving the power to regulate “interstate commerce” to the Federal government, intending to prevent the kind of tariffs and barriers that Britain had used to benefit their own industries at Colonial expense from springing up between the States.

Today France is in the throes of strikes and disorder as its Socialist government tries to reform its labor regulations to allow for a freer market in labor.[6] Current regulations there make it so difficult to fire or lay off employees that companies do everything they can to avoid hiring regular full-time employees, and most young people are forced into the undermarket of contract and temporary labor to gain employment. Youth unemployment rates over 20% in many parts of Europe are crippling their career development, in large part due to overregulation. Entire economies grow more slowly when special-interest regulation favors the few insiders who already have secure positions over the young outsiders.

Trade liberalization and the global spread of freer markets produced the greatest improvement in global living standards the world has ever seen, the Great Enrichment, with higher living standards than ever dreamed of for middle classes in the developed world, and billions of people lifted out of poverty outside it.[7] The increasing prosperity and health of these populations defused the population bomb that was supposed to have produced famine and war by the late 1970s.[8] Technological innovation and capitalist investment fed more people and found more resources and energy at lower prices. Growing wealth created a demand for clean air and water, and a supply of new emissions and cleanup technologies that have improved the local environment of every country that has completed the transition to both democratic governance and capitalism. The countries that tried to maintain their centrally-planned economies were outcompeted, and every one has either given up central planning or collapsed into poverty.

But the temptation to control an organic free-market economy to benefit special interests is always waiting, and those special interests (whether private industries or public employee unions) are good at funding campaigns and lobbying legislators to have laws written in their favor. US courts have been all too willing — since the Supreme Court’s 1937 “Switch in time that saved nine,” which bowed to to FDR’s desires[9] — to allow Congress and state legislatures to regulate private contracts and trade by presuming that any regulation which had a ”rational basis” was constitutional. This great expansion of opportunities for graft resulted in the growth of an overbearing administrative state, a permanent shadow government of tenured bureaucrats and administrators who are so protected by Civil Service and public employee unions that there is no accountability and only limited desire to serve the public who pay all the bills. Meanwhile, the economy grows more and more slowly as some industries like banks are bailed out and protected while others are harassed by regulators. Small businesses and community banks are crippled by costly regulatory requirements and labor rules like the ACA, while costs rise in every sector heavily regulated by governments — those sectors (healthcare, education, banking…) lobby for special loans and subsidies. Young people are told they must go to college, taught that government and nonprofit services are the most moral career choices, then saddled with student loan debt and a slack labor market when they graduate — if they graduate.

Let’s imagine for a moment that a Freedom of Contract Amendment exists — a freedom implied by common law and precedent until 1937, but smothered by Progressives eager to mold the people toward a scientifically-managed, centrally-planned future — which as we have seen does not work. People would be free to sell their labor under any terms they wish. Other than Civil Rights Act protections against discrimination, employers would be free to seek out the best employees for their teams and organize them and pay them however they wish. The impossibly complex jumble of fringe benefits and 401Ks and stock plans and options created by complicated tax incentives goes away when the tax system is simplified. It’s a dream, right? Freedom to achieve without being “helped” by a politician with his or her hand out for a contribution, or sued by a lawyer wanting to retroactively apply antiquated 1930s labor regulations designed for factories to your white-collar employees…

The future doesn’t come with thousands of pages of laws and regulations dating back to the last century and designed to hold a tottering status quo in place. It comes out of individual striving and new technologies, and an American people free to mold themselves as they wish. The access to all of the world’s knowledge we now have via the internet means education can be flexible and nearly free for those who are motivated, and trapping our children in failed urban schools or mediocre and left-wing public universities wastes their time and our tax money.

[Note that the current mechanism for negotiating and implementing “free trade agreements” looks very much like the dysfunctional process now used to write new laws — opaque, lengthy, written by committees and tailored to special interests. That’s certainly not a good thing, and opens the process to corrupt bargaining. I’m defending the general principle of free trade here, and often these deals are mixed, a net positive for the US economy while containing many objectionable parts.]

[2] “The Changing Role of Chaebol,” Charlotte Marguerite Powers, Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs, Summer 2010,
[3] “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E. Reed,” courtesy of the Ralph Smeed Private Foundation, 1958.
[4] “U.S. Department of Transportation expands and accelerates Takata air bag inflator recall to protect American drivers and passengers,” US NHTSA 13-16, May 4, 2016,
[6] “France labour dispute: Wave of strike action nationwide,” BBC, 26 May 2016
[7] “How the West (and the Rest) Got Rich — The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has one primary source: the liberation of ordinary people to pursue their dreams of economic betterment,” Deirdre N. McCloskey, Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2016,
[8] “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion,” Clyde Habermann, New York Times, May 31, 2015,
[9] “‘The switch in time that saved nine’ is the name given to what was perceived as the sudden jurisprudential shift by Associate Justice Owen Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1937 case West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. Conventional historical accounts portrayed the Court’s majority opinion as a strategic political move to protect the Court’s integrity and independence from President Franklin Roosevelt’s court-reform bill (also known as the “court-packing plan”), which would have expanded the size of the bench up to 15 justices, though it has been argued that these accounts have misconstrued the historical record.”

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


More reading on other topics:

Regulation Strangling Innovation: Planes, Trains, and Hyperloop
Captain America and Progressive Infantilization
FDA Wants More Lung Cancer
Jane Jacobs’ Monstrous Hybrids: Guardians vs Commerce
The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
Death by HR: How Affirmative Action is Crippling America
Death by HR: The End of Merit in Civil Service
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Death by HR: History and Practice of Affirmative Action and the EEOC
Civil Service: Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Dream
Bootleggers and Baptists
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Justice Dept. Extortion
Corrupt Feedback Loops, Goldman Sachs: More Justice Dept. Extortion
Death by HR: The Birth and Evolution of the HR Department
Death by HR: The Simple Model of Project Labor
Levellers and Redistributionists: The Feudal Underpinnings of Socialism
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
Trump World: Looking Backward
Minimum Wage: The Parable of the Ladder
Selective Outrage
Culture Wars: Co-Existence Through Limited Government
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
The Morality of Glamour

On Affirmative Action and Social Policy:

Affirmative Action: Chinese, Indian-Origin Citizens in Malaysia Oppressed
Affirmative Action: Caste Reservation in India
Diversity Hires: Pressure on High Tech<a
Title IX Totalitarianism is Gender-Neutral
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
The Social Decay of Black Neighborhoods (And Yours!)
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
“Income Inequality” Propaganda is Just Disguised Materialism

The greatest hits from (Science Fiction topics):

Fear is the Mindkiller
Mirror Neurons and Irene Gallo
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Selective Outrage
Sons of Liberty vs. National Front
“Tomorrowland”: Tragic Misfire
The Death of “Wired”: Hugo Awards Edition
Hugos, Sad Puppies 3, and Direct Knowledge
Selective Outrage and Angry Tribes
Men of Honor vs Victim Culture
SFF, Hugos, Curating the Best
“Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?”
Science Fiction Fandom and SJW warfare

More reading on the military:

US Military: From No Standing Armies to Permanent Global Power
US Military: The Desegration Experience
The VA Scandals: Death by Bureaucracy

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