Gottfried Haberler’s contribution to trade theory

17 Feb

Gottfried Haberler was a member of what is loosely termed the ‘Austrian’ school of economics, to denote the group of theorists who opposed centralised – government – intervention in money creation, which they argued artificially distorted capital flows and created structural inefficiencies.

He was more closely tied to the Austrian school at the beginning of his career, when while in that country he was a regular contributor to the seminars organised by Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises; as part of the Mises-Kreis, the celebrated group of economic, sociological and philosophical thinkers.

In what was, for the time, a departure from the orthodox theory of value, quantified it in terms of labour and output, the Austrian theory of value focused on the process of production itself. And how in electing to lend part of the finite amount of money to certain industries over others, there was a danger of creating structural inefficiencies which would self-correct over the course of the business cycle.

A Pioneer in Trade Theory

In the 1930s Haberler was instrumental in creating an alternative framework for analysing cost and value, moving away from the theory of comparative costs (advantage) on the single-product model which had underpinned trade theory since Ricardo. Haberler’s framework mapped out the relationship between the opportunity cost of producing two competing goods, under a given supply of productive factors. This he performed both for constant and fluctuating opportunity costs.

Previously orthodox theory had been based on the ‘real-cost’ theory of value, which saw prices as quantified largely in units of labor. The new approach enabled the determination of relative prices to be analysed under more realistic production circumstances as variable factor productions, in a much simpler and more direct manner than under a real-cost approach.

This paradigm shift triggered a wave of writings by other academics, which incorporated and expanded Haberler’s theory, like Lerner (1932, 1933, and 1934), Leontief (1933)  and Viner (1937), who introduced ‘social’ or ‘community indifference’ curves. When these two curves – those of opportunity cost and social indifference – are plotted together – Marshall’s reciprocal demand curves can be derived; and most general equilibrium effects of trade on relative commodity prices, production, and consumption then shown.

What Haberler’s analysis did not include was an attempt to model consumer preferences for the commodities being produced. Nor an explanation of how productive factors evolve as an economy moves along its production-possibilities curve. This would have to wait until Stolper and Samuelson (disciples of Haberler) published their ground-breaking article in 1941, which elucidated more fully the way the production-possibilities curve is determined, and how factor proportions fluctuate along the curve.

 Where Trade Theory Fails

Haberler’s 1950 work, ‘Some Problems in the Pure Theory of International Trade’, examined the less-than-ideal situation of real wage rigidity, which can be caused by insufficient mobility of labour between a developed and less developed sector; one of the scenarios examined by economists who later expanded his model. This article formed the precursor for an extensive body of literature on ‘domestic distortions’ in which orthodox theories of trade relations might be non-applicable.

The consensus that in the majority of situations free, unimpeded trade has a net benefit did not change dramatically. The theory so-called Hicksian optimism rehabilitated the argument for free trade largely on the basis that wider availability of goods and increased competition leading to cheaper prices would yield a welfare gain; the need for protection arises only when there is a market failure in the domestic economy. Where there is a domestic divergence between prices and marginal costs, foreign competition can hurt some domestic industries.

In the event of real wage rigidity, the opening-up of trade – whether in a full customs union or a free trade area – could cause loss of output. Industries which for whatever reason are unable to pay a competitive rate which attracts new workers would be threatened by removing tariff barriers, which would allow unimpeded entry of competing products.

As the marginal return on these products became unviable, but wages were not flexible enough to change accordingly, labour would move out of these struggling industries and into more competitive ones. Often the industries that suffer are those at the breaking edge of new technology and development, which lacks a mature labour pool with the necessary skill set.

Let’s Get Technical

In his econometric model Haberler demonstrated that increased availability of products and a wider market to stimulate output had a net benefit, provided this increase was to the right of the domestic indifference curve.

In trade theory the state of ‘autarky’ is where the factors of production are deployed to their maximum potential, accounting for the limiting factors of the opportunity cost of manufacturing that product over another, which are assumed to increase; and a community indifference curve which has an inverse relationship to the opportunity cost curve, (increasing where there is scarcity of a particular good’.

The material gains from trade are represented in graphical form by the international trade ratio. In a model comprising two exchangeable commodities, this describes the amount of commodity A that can be exchanged for commodity B. If commodity A buys two of commodity B abroad, but at home you need two of commodity A to get one of B, then domestically A is more valuable. Therefore B should be exported.

However, Haberler has a caveat. If T, the international trade ratio representing the increased availability of goods from trade, is such that there is a net outflow of goods, that “these imperfections are persistent, … and that they persistently operate in such a direction as to weaken (rather than to strengthen) the case for free trade,” protection might be justified.

His idea of a desirable welfare position is not an overly naive one in which all individuals are necessarily better off, but “it is sufficient that everybody could be better off.” He distances himself from the idea that “perfect mobility of factors within each country is a necessary condition for the ideal classical model”, going on to assert that “what really causes trouble and may make trade detrimental and justify protection is rigidity of factor prices, which may or may not be associated with immobility of factors.” The most likely factor to experience difficulty transitioning between industries is that of labour.

Expanding this theory further, Brecher (1974) examined a number of scenarios involving real wage rigidity, starting with one in which free trade was combined with unemployment; he analysed the consequences of using different policy instruments. If the importable is labour-intensive to produce, a tariff would increase employment and output, by shielding domestic industry. But capital and labour would move disproportionately into the protected industry; also there would be a by-product consumption distortion.

When the demand for a product, reflected in its price, is proportionate to the marginal cost for each firm and product, there is zero distortion. But protectionism can mean the output swells beyond sustainable consumer demand, as that industry is protected from foreign competition and, more indirectly, may benefit from tariff revenue.

The Austrian school holds that distortions of this kind inevitably self-correct over the course of the business cycle, and ‘creative destruction’ can mean boom-time companies do not survive when they lose policy protection.

The second scenario Brecher modelled was polarised between a subsistence, and an advanced sector, where high skills and/or costly technology necessitated a wage rate in excess of the opportunity cost of labour – i.e. higher than the marginal product of labour in the subsistence sector. To phrase it in plain English, these advanced sectors would have trouble attracting capital which could be profitably employed in more basic industries.

This form of domestic distortion, he argued, necessitates subsidies in place of tariffs or taxes on trade. Because the revenue effect is negative and so higher distorting consumption taxes are needed, he acknowledges the extent of the offsetting subsidies may have to be incomplete.

The distortions not offset are weighed against the new distortions created as a consequence of financing the subsidies. While not a perfect solution, he concludes it is ‘first-best’, the most beneficial option, to deal with distortions in this way.

This theory of ‘domestic distortions’, which Haberler led the field in, is admittedly a far cry away from his origins as an Austrian School disciple, a staunch defender of the principle of unimpeded trade. This just goes to demonstrate his intellectual versatility and ability to break with orthodoxy and form new approaches.

But today it might be time for a new school of thought on the subject. As is so often the case in institutions where collective decision-making is skewed by relative economic and political weight, the WTO is governed to a large extent by the vested interests of the countries with the biggest economic muscle. Trade or customs unions like that existing within the EU and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TRIPS) which Trump made guillotining one of his first official presidential acts, only yield a net benefit to those participating in them.

For those countries outside the golden circle, they can face significant obstacles to equitable trade not limited to tariffs; customs’ scrutiny of imports is far lower, for example, within the EU which has a unified legislative framework to enforce commercial and legal standards. Trump’s announcement of his intention to renew the North American Free Trade Agreement is another step towards his avowed position as a champion of ‘free trade’[1] and greater competitiveness.



‘The Normative Theory of International Trade’ – W. M. Corden, Australian National University, Canberra  (Seminar Paper no.230)

‘Gottfried Haberler (1900 – 1995)’ – Joseph T. Salerno.

‘Some Problems in the Pure Theory of International Trade’ – Gottfried Haberler, 1950

‘Gottfried Haberler’s Contributions to International Trade Theory and Policy’ – Robert E. Baldwin, The Quarterly Journal of Economics vol. 97, No. 1 (Feb 1982), p.141-48




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