What Is International Trade Theory?

Read this introduction to mercantilism and the difference between classical country-based theories and modern firm-based theories. What is the historical significance of mercantilism for international trade patterns?

2.1 What Is International Trade Theory?

Absolute Advantage

In 1776, Adam Smith questioned the leading mercantile theory of the time in The Wealth of NationsRecent versions have been edited by scholars and economists. Smith offered a new trade theory called absolute advantage, which focused on the ability of a country to produce a good more efficiently than another nation. Smith reasoned that trade between countries shouldn't be regulated or restricted by government policy or intervention. He stated that trade should flow naturally according to market forces. In a hypothetical two-country world, if Country A could produce a good cheaper or faster (or both) than Country B, then Country A had the advantage and could focus on specializing on producing that good. Similarly, if Country B was better at producing another good, it could focus on specialization as well. By specialization, countries would generate efficiencies, because their labor force would become more skilled by doing the same tasks. Production would also become more efficient, because there would be an incentive to create faster and better production methods to increase the specialization.

Smith's theory reasoned that with increased efficiencies, people in both countries would benefit and trade should be encouraged. His theory stated that a nation's wealth shouldn't be judged by how much gold and silver it had but rather by the living standards of its people.