Mutually Beneficial Trade with Comparative Advantage
When nations increase production in their area of comparative advantage and trade with each other, both countries can benefit. Again, the production possibility frontier is a useful tool to visualize this benefit.
Consider a situation where the United States and Mexico each have 40 workers. For example, as this table shows, if the United States divides its labor so that 40 workers are making shoes, then, since it takes four workers in the United States to make 1,000 shoes, a total of 10,000 shoes will be produced. (If four workers can make 1,000 shoes, then 40 workers will make 10,000 shoes). If the 40 workers in the United States are making refrigerators, and each worker can produce 1,000 refrigerators, then a total of 40,000 refrigerators will be produced.
Production Possibilities before Trade with Complete Specialization
|Country||Shoe Production — using 40 workers||Refrigerator Production — using 40 workers|
|United States||10,000 shoes||or||40,000 refrigerators|
|Mexico||8,000 shoes||or||10,000 refrigerators|
As always, the slope of the production possibility frontier for each country is the opportunity cost of one refrigerator in terms of foregone shoe production–when labor is transferred from producing the latter to producing the former (see this figure).
Production Possibility Frontiers
Let’s say that, in the situation before trade, each nation prefers to produce a combination of shoes and refrigerators that is shown at point A. this table shows the output of each good for each country and the total output for the two countries.
Total Production at Point A before Trade
|Country||Current Shoe Production||Current Refrigerator Production|
Continuing with this scenario, each country transfers some amount of labor toward its area of comparative advantage. For example, the United States transfers six workers away from shoes and toward producing refrigerators. As a result, U.S. production of shoes decreases by 1,500 units (6/4 × 1,000), while its production of refrigerators increases by 6,000 (that is, 6/1 × 1,000). Mexico also moves production toward its area of comparative advantage, transferring 10 workers away from refrigerators and toward production of shoes.
As a result, production of refrigerators in Mexico falls by 2,500 (10/4 × 1,000), but production of shoes increases by 2,000 pairs (10/5 × 1,000). Notice that when both countries shift production toward each of their comparative advantages (what they are relatively better at), their combined production of both goods rises, as shown in this table. The reduction of shoe production by 1,500 pairs in the United States is more than offset by the gain of 2,000 pairs of shoes in Mexico, while the reduction of 2,500 refrigerators in Mexico is more than offset by the additional 6,000 refrigerators produced in the United States.
Shifting Production Toward Comparative Advantage Raises Total Output
|Country||Shoe Production||Refrigerator Production|
This numerical example illustrates the remarkable insight of comparative advantage: even when one country has an absolute advantage in all goods and another country has an absolute disadvantage in all goods, both countries can still benefit from trade. Even though the United States has an absolute advantage in producing both refrigerators and shoes, it makes economic sense for it to specialize in the good for which it has a comparative advantage. The United States will export refrigerators and in return import shoes.