Hillary, Donald, and the theory of comparative advantage

“I don’t like either one. Donald’s a racist and Hillary’s a liar”. I heard a voter interviewed along these lines the other day, and it encapsulates the view of millions that has brought us to the edge of a possible Trump victory.

It’s an astonishing view, for by any empirical standard, as many analysts have shown, it’s Donald who’s the liar. In terms of telling the truth, Hillary is a normal politician and Donald is far from normal. Yet by systematically attacking her honesty in every speech and tweet, he has gone a good way to destroying her reputation, just as earlier in the campaign he systematically destroyed Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio.

What Donald is doing is exploiting what economists call the theory of comparative advantage. David Ricardo famously observed that if England is less efficient than Portugal in making cloth but much less efficient in making wine, then it should make cloth anyway and trade it with Portugal. In cloth-making, England has an absolute disadvantage but a comparative advantage.

The same principle determines what insults are traded by Hillary and Donald. On an absolute scale, Trump is the liar, but his dishonesty must be ranged against his other defects of racism, misogyny, ignorance, lack of experience, impetuousness, laziness, narcissism, and contempt for the rule of law. Hillary lacks such defects, so it’s her honesty that gets attacked. Every time Trump speaks of “crooked Hillary”, he is endorsing Ricardo’s analysis of free trade.

[6 November 2016]

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