This is “The Costs and Benefits of Free Trade under Monopolistic Competition”, section 6.7 from the book Policy and Theory of International Trade (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.
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Welfare of individual consumers who purchase the representative product will be enhanced for three main reasons. First, trade increases the number of varieties of products for consumers to choose from. Second, free trade reduces the price of every variety sold in the market. Third, free trade may increase the supply of products in other markets and result in lower prices for those products.
If the product is such that an individual consumer seeks to purchase a product closest to her ideal variety, then presumably with more varieties available, more consumers will be able to purchase more products closer to their ideal. For these consumers welfare will be improved. Other consumers, however, may not be affected by the increase in varieties. If, for example, the new varieties that become available are all more distant from one’s ideal than the product purchased in autarky, then one would continue to purchase the same product in free trade. In this case, the increase in variety does not benefit the consumer.
If the product is one in which consumers purchase many different varieties over time (love of variety), then because trade will increase the number of varieties available to each consumer, trade will improve every consumer’s welfare. Of course, this is based on the assumption that every consumer prefers more varieties to less. Thus regardless of whether the product is characterized by the ideal variety or the love-of-variety approach, free trade, by increasing the number of varieties, will increase aggregate consumer welfare.
There are two potential costs of free trade in this model. The first involves the potential costs of adjustment in the industry. The second involves the possibility that more varieties will increase transaction costs. Each cost requires modification of the basic assumptions of the model in a way that conforms more closely with the real world. However, since these assumption changes are not formally included in the model, the results are subject to interpretation.
Before we argued that because trade increases the number of varieties available to each consumer, each consumer is more likely to find a product that is closer to his or her ideal variety. In this way, more varieties may increase aggregate welfare. However, the increase in the number of varieties also increases the cost of searching for one’s ideal variety. More time will now be needed to make a careful evaluation. One could reduce these transaction costs by choosing to evaluate only a sample of the available products. However, in this case, a psychological cost might also arise because of the inherent uncertainty about whether the best possible choice was indeed made. Thus, welfare would be diminished among consumers to the extent that there are increased transaction costs because of the increase in the number of varieties to evaluate.
The welfare effects under the basic assumptions of the model are entirely positive. Improvements in productive efficiency arise as firms produce further down along their average cost curves in free trade. Consumption efficiency is raised because consumers are able to buy the products at lower prices and have a greater variety to choose from.
Potential costs arise in the model only if we introduce the additional assumptions of adjustment costs or transactions costs. The net welfare effect in the presence of adjustment and transactions costs will still be positive if the production and consumption efficiency effects are larger.
Jeopardy Questions. As in the popular television game show, you are given an answer to a question and you must respond with the question. For example, if the answer is “a tax on imports,” then the correct question is “What is a tariff?”