The Importance of Fairness in International Trade

February 25, 2014
By Jenny Li Fowler, HKS Communications

A common view about the role of fairness considerations in trade say that since trade is generally advantageous for all countries involved and since it is unilaterally rational for each country to be involved in trade, there is little room for considerations of fairness. But some new theories are now questioning that belief.

In his new Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Faculty Research Working Paper titled “Three Images of Trade: On the Place of Trade in a Theory of Global Justice,” Mathias Risse, professor of philosophy and public policy, examines the element of fairness in trade.

“Considerations of fairness should matter front and center when it comes to trade negotiations and assessment of trade policy,” Risse writes.

Risse discusses three ways of understanding fairness in the context of international trade. The first, which is commonly held among economists, is that trade is a voluntary activity among consenting parties, and because it is such, there is very little room for considerations of fairness in trade.

The second view, which Risse argues has recently gained some prominence among political philosophers, “is that all gains from trade should be divided up equally among participating countries.”

Risse offers a third view – the notion of exploitation being central to our understanding of fairness in trade.

This view, he writes, “recognizes the importance of states for maintaining the practices that provide the background for the trade.” Moreover, he argues “it is primarily a shared obligation of states in the trade domain to make sure no exploitation occurs among these agents.”

Risse explains that this view is the only one “that can be embedded into an overall theory of global justice in a way that accommodates an important insight about moral problems that arise in the context of trade...This means that fairness in trade is a lot more demanding than many economist want to allow, but also rather different from what some of our philosophical colleagues believe.”

Mathias Risse is Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy. He works mostly in social and political philosophy and in ethics. This Working Paper is based off his book, “On Global Justice,” which was published in 2012 and is part of his work towards a follow-up volume, tentatively called “The Grounds of Justice.”

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Mathias Risse, professor of philosophy and public policy

Mathias Risse, professor of philosophy and public policy

Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

“Considerations of fairness should matter front and center when it comes to trade negotiations and assessment of trade policy."