Let’s downgrade comparative advantage from our list of key concepts in economics..

Prof. Michael Munger of Duke Univ says so in this article.

He says the real deal is division of labour. The old idea of comparative adv had a notion of fixedness to it. But comparative advantage is a dynamic concept and keeps changing:

The problem is that fixed comparative advantage — derived from weather, culture, and location — is vanishing in the modern world. Ricardo’s classical formulation leaves no space for human creativity, no role for division of labor, and no room for innovation to affect the dynamics of cost.

So economists have it wrong, as my friend Russ Roberts argued in 2010. The most important principle in economics is opportunity cost. Here’s proof: you can define opportunity cost without resorting to comparative advantage. But you can’t possibly define comparative advantage without invoking opportunity cost.

The notion of comparative advantage is empirically misleading, because it sounds deterministic. There are few situations where fixed factors make the relative opportunity costs of different actions immutable. Instead, cost and productivity differences are endogenous, the consequence of human ingenuity and the division of labor. Today’s cost advantage for one country may disappear if another country finds a better, cheaper way to produce the product. And the way to specialize is to exploit the division of labor.


Admittedly, it was a significant intellectual achievement to show that the weaker trading partner benefits from trade, even if the stronger partner is better at everything. But those fixed differences have largely disappeared in many markets. The question of what should be produced, and where, is now answered by dynamic processes of market signals and price movements, driven by human ingenuity and creativity. The cost savings resulting from successfully dividing labor and automating production processes dwarf the considerations that made comparative advantage a useful concept in economics.

Let’s downgrade comparative advantage from our list of key concepts in economics, and recognize that the human mind is the mainspring of a market economy.




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