Social Philosophy and Policy

Research Article


Fernando R. Tesóna1

a1 Law, Florida State University


The article argues that free trade is required by any plausible conception of justice. Free trade is supported by a host of consequentialist and deontological reasons. Empirically, trade increases global and national wealth, and in particular helps the poor. Morally, those who benefit from protectionist laws are not deserving beneficiaries of wealth redistribution. Both economic theory and evidence amply warrant the view that trade is beneficial. Protectionism by rich countries is harmful, not only to those countries' consumers, but to producers in poor countries. Given this, and given the fact that protectionism is almost always the result of political pressure by inefficient producers, there is no plausible moral reason to support it. Protectionism by poor countries is equally harmful. Relying on the institutionalist literature, the article shows that protectionism is yet another bad institution that contributes to economic stagnation in those countries. The article considers and rejects two criticisms of free trade: the problem of stolen goods, and the pauper-labor argument.

Fernando R. Tesón is the Tobias Simon Eminent Scholar at Florida State University College of Law. A native of Buenos Aires, he is known for his scholarship relating political philosophy to international law (in particular his defense of humanitarian intervention), and his work on political rhetoric. He has authored Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality (3d ed., 2005), Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation [with Guido Pincione] (2006), A Philosophy of International Law (1998), and many articles in law, philosophy, and international relations journals and edited collections. He is currently working on a book on global justice with Loren Lomasky of the University of Virginia. Before joining Florida State in 2002, he taught for seventeen years at Arizona State University. He has served as a visiting professor at Cornell Law School, Indiana University School of Law, University of California Hastings College of Law, the Oxford-George Washington International Human Rights Program, and the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires.


* I am heavily indebted to Jonathan Klick of the University of Pennsylvania, who did the research summarized in Section II. Many thanks also to the Social Philosophy and Policy Center of Bowling Green State University. The summer I spent there in 2008 as a Visiting Scholar allowed me to conduct part of the research for this essay.