From the Wikipedia:
"Free trade is a system of trade policy that allows traders to act and or transact without interference from government. According to the law of comparative advantage the policy permits trading partners mutual gains from trade of goods and services.
Under a free trade policy, prices are a reflection of true supply and demand, and are the sole determinant of resource allocation. Free trade differs from other forms of trade policy where the allocation of goods and services amongst trading countries are determined by artificial prices that may or may not reflect the true nature of supply and demand. These artificial prices are the result of protectionist trade policies, whereby governments intervene in the market through price adjustments and supply restrictions. Such government interventions can increase as well as decrease the cost of goods and services to both consumers and producers.
Interventions include subsidies, taxes and tariffs, non-tariff barriers, such as regulatory legislation and quotas, and even inter-government managed trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) (contrary to their formal titles) and any governmental market intervention resulting in artificial prices." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_trade)
Mistaken Assumptions on Free Trade
"Thanks to the work of a small, brave group of dissident economists — scholars like Ralph Gomory, William Baumol, Erik Reinert, and Ha-Joon Chang — the credibility of free trade as a theoretical doctrine is crumbling, and the discipline will eventually change its mind. But it will almost certainly be a lagging indicator, ready to vindicate policy forged in crisis well after the dust has settled. Academia is a superb rationalizer, and will doubtless find a way to avoid embarrassing questions about its own past positions when it teaches undergraduates twenty years from now that free trade is a delusion and a mistake.
What’s wrong with free trade? A whole host of problems, many of them long known to economists but assumed in recent decades to be unimportant.
The technical plot thickens here fast, but we can begin by noting that any serious discussion of free trade must confront David Ricardo’s celebrated 1817 theory of comparative advantage, whose tale of English cloth and Portuguese wine is familiar to generations of economics students. According to a myth accepted by both laypeople and far too many professional economists, this theory proves that free trade is best, always and everywhere, regardless of whether a nation’s trading partners reciprocate.
Unfortunately for free traders, this theory is riddled with dubious assumptions, some of which even Ricardo acknowledged. If they held true, the hypothesis would hold water. But because they often don’t, it is largely inapplicable in the real world. Here’s why:
Ricardo’s first dubious assumption is that trade is sustainable. But when a nation imports so much that it runs a trade deficit, this means it is either selling assets to foreign nations or going into debt to them. These processes, while elastic, aren’t infinitely so. This is precisely the situation the United States is in today: not only does it risk an eventual crash, but in the meantime, every dollar of assets it sells and every dollar of debt it assumes reduces the nation’s net worth.
Ricardo’s second dubious assumption is that the productive assets used to generate goods and services can easily be shifted from declining to rising industries. But laid-off autoworkers and abandoned automobile plants don’t generally transition easily to making helicopters. Assistance payments can blunt the pain, but these costs must be counted against the purported benefits of free trade, and they make free trade an enlarger of big government.
The third dubious assumption is that free trade doesn’t worsen income inequality. But, in reality, it squeezes the wages of ordinary Americans because it expands the world’s effective supply of labor, which can move from rice paddy to factory overnight, faster than its supply of capital, which takes decades to accumulate at prevailing savings rates. As a result, free trade strengthens the bargaining position of capital relative to labor. And there is no guarantee that ordinary people’s gains from cheaper imports will outweigh their losses from lowered wages.
The fourth dubious assumption is that capital isn’t internationally mobile. If it can’t move between nations, then free trade will (if the other assumptions hold true) steer it to the most productive use in our own economy. But if capital can move between nations, then free trade may reveal that it can be used better somewhere else. This will benefit the nation that the capital migrates to, and the world economy as a whole, but it won’t always benefit us.
The fifth dubious assumption is that free trade won’t turn benign trading partners into dangerous trading rivals. But free trade often does do this, as we see today in China, whose growth is massively dependent upon exports. This is especially likely when trading partners practice mercantilism, the 400-year-old strategy of deliberately gaming the world trading system by methods like currency manipulation and hidden tariffs.
The sixth dubious assumption is that short-term efficiency leads to long-term growth. But such growth has more to do with creative destruction, innovation, and capital accumulation than it does with short-term efficiency. All developed nations, including the United States, industrialized by means of protectionist policies that were inefficient in the short run.
What is the implication of all these loopholes in Ricardo’s theory? That trade is good for America, but free trade, which is not the same thing at all, is a very dicey proposition. book
For a fuller discussion of free trade, read Ian Fletcher's book (click on the cover above to learn more).
Beyond the holes in Ricardo, there is an entire new way of looking at trade growing up around the theoretical insights of Ralph Gomory and William Baumol of New York University. The details are technical, but the upshot is they have managed to bridge the gap between the Pollyannaish “international trade is always win-win” Ricardian view and the overly pessimistic “international trade is war” view. The former view is naive; the latter ignores the fact that economics precisely isn’t war because it is a positive-sum game in which goods are produced, not just divided, making mutual gains possible.
So at long last, someone has given us a theoretical framework that can accommodate economic reality as we actually experience it, not just lecture us on what “must” happen as Ricardianism does. It’s both a dog-eat-dog and a scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours world. Economics has finally given common sense permission to be true. Ironically, their sophisticated mathematical models are actually closer to the thinking of the man on the street than those they replaced.
There is an appropriate policy response. For starters, the United States should apply compensatory tariffs against imports subsidized by currency manipulation, an idea that originated with Kevin Kearns of the U.S. Business and Industry Council and was passed by the House of Representatives in the previous Congress. Also essential is a border tax to counter foreign export rebates implemented by means of foreign value-added taxes.
Perhaps even more important than the pure economics of free trade is its political economy (an older and more accurate term). For the fundamental reality of free trade is that it relieves corporate America from any substantial economic tie to the economic well-being of ordinary Americans. If corporate America can produce its products anywhere, and sell them anywhere, then it has no incentive to care about the capacity of Americans to produce or consume. Conversely, if it is tied to making a profit by selling goods made by Americans to Americans, then it has a natural incentive to care about American productivity and consumption." (http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/the-crumbling-of-free-trade-and-why-its-a-good-thing)
Bio-details: Ian Fletcher is a senior economist at the San Francisco office of the Coalition for a Prosperous America. His specialties are trade economics, protectionism, and industrial policy. He is the author of "Free Trade Doesn't Work: What Should Replace It and Why" (http://www.freetradedoesntwork.com/). He was previously an economist in private practice. You can follow his work at huffingtonpost.com/ian-fletcher.