While economists overwhelmingly favor free trade, even unilateral free trade, because of the gains realizable from specialization and the exploitation of comparative advantage, in fact international trading relations are structured by a complex body of multilateral and preferential trade agreements. The article outlines the case for multilateral trade agreements and the non-discrimination principle that they embody, in the form of both the Most Favored Nation principle and the National Treatment principle, where non-discrimination has been widely advocated as supporting both geopolitical goals (reducing economic factionalism) and economic goals (ensuring the full play of theories of comparative advantage undistorted by discriminatory trade treatment).
Despite the virtues of multilateral trade agreements, preferential trade agreements (PTAs), authorized from the outset under GATT, have proliferated in recent years, even though they are inherently discriminatory between members and non-members, provoking vigorous debates as to whether (a) PTAs are trade-creating or trade-diverting; (b) whether they increase transaction costs in international trade; and (c) whether they undermine the future course of multilateral trade liberalization.
A further and similarly contentious derogation from the principle of non-discrimination under the multilateral system is Special and Differential Treatment for developing countries, where since the mid-1950s developing countries have been given much greater latitude than developed countries to engage in trade protectionism on the import side in order to promote infant industries, and since the mid-1960s on the export side have benefited from non-reciprocal trade concessions by developed countries on products of actual or potential export interest to developing countries.
Beyond debates over the strengths and weaknesses of multilateral trade agreements and the two major derogations therefrom, further debates surround the appropriate scope of trade agreements, and in particular the expansion of their scope in recent decades to address divergences or incompatibilities across a wide range of domestic regulatory and related policies that arguably create frictions in cross-border trade and investment and hence constitute an impediment to it.
The article goes on to consider contemporary fair trade versus free trade debates, including concerns over trade deficits, currency manipulation, export subsidies, misappropriation of intellectual property rights, and lax labor or environmental standards. The article concludes with a consideration of the case for a larger scope for plurilateral trade agreements internationally, and for a larger scope for active labor market policies domestically to mitigate transition costs from trade.