Comparative Advantage & Trade

I (your teacher) cannot perform simple maintenance on my car or basically perform any skill that involves a hand-tool. But I can build a website, and I’m somewhat skilled at making rooms full of teenagers learn things they don’t really want to learn. If I tried to replace my brakes it would take all day and there’s a high probability I might smash into something on the freeway when everything falls apart. And as the pandemic lockdown proved, if the mechanic had to teach their teenagers economics it probably won’t go well.
The mechanic is better off charging me to fix my breaks and I’m better off staying in the classroom. The specialized skills we have creates a comparative advantage, and by entering into a voluntary exchange, or trade, I get safe car breaks and the mechanic gets an educated child.

What you need to learn

Capitalism is the best–YAY!
jk, sorta.
How does comparative advantage & mutually beneficial international trade create wealth and increased standard of living?



production possibilities frontier (PPF)

absolute advantage

comparative advantage


the PPF & opportunity costs

mutually beneficial trade is…mutually beneficial

Understanding Comparative Advantage in Economics

Comparative and Absolute Advantage

In economics, understanding how countries or entities best allocate their resources for production is key. Two crucial concepts in this realm are absolute and comparative advantage. Absolute advantage refers to the ability of a country to produce more of a good or service than others with the same amount of resources. However, it’s comparative advantage that often drives international trade. Comparative advantage exists when a country can produce a good or service at a lower opportunity cost than others.

The Role of Specialization: Specialization plays a pivotal role in leveraging comparative advantage. It involves focusing on the production of goods or services where a country has a comparative advantage. This specialization leads to more efficient production, as resources are allocated to industries where they are used most effectively. For instance, Japan specializes in technology and car manufacturing, while Australia specializes in mining and agricultural products.

Understanding the concepts of comparative and absolute advantage is crucial in economics, especially when discussing international trade. Let’s break down these terms in a way that’s easy for high school students to grasp.

Difference between absolute/comparative advantage

Absolute Advantage

  1. Definition: Absolute advantage refers to the ability of a country (or individual, business, etc.) to produce a certain good more efficiently than another country. This efficiency is typically measured in terms of quantity and speed of production.
  2. Example: Imagine two countries, Country A and Country B. Country A can produce 100 units of a product in a day, while Country B can only produce 50 units of the same product in a day. Here, Country A has an absolute advantage.
  3. Key Point: Absolute advantage is all about who can produce more or faster, without considering the trade-offs or opportunity costs.

Comparative Advantage

  1. Definition: Comparative advantage is a bit more complex. It’s about who can produce a good at a lower opportunity cost than someone else. Opportunity cost is what you give up in order to do something else.
  2. Example: Let’s go back to Country A and Country B. Suppose Country A can produce either 100 units of product X or 200 units of product Y in a day. Country B can produce 50 units of product X or 150 units of product Y in the same time. Country A has an absolute advantage in both products, but Country B has a comparative advantage in product Y because it gives up fewer units of product X to produce product Y than Country A does.
  3. Key Point: Comparative advantage encourages countries to specialize in producing goods where they have a lower opportunity cost, leading to more efficient global production and trade.

In Context of International Trade

  • Absolute Advantage: This concept suggests that if a country is the best at producing something, it should focus on that. However, it doesn’t always mean it’s the best option for trade.
  • Comparative Advantage: This is the driving force behind most international trade. It shows that even if a country is less efficient at producing all goods, there can still be benefits from specializing and trading.

Production Possibilities Frontier (PPF) and Opportunity Cost

The Production Possibilities Frontier (PPF) is a curve depicting the maximum output possibilities for two goods, given a set of inputs. The concept of opportunity cost is integral to the PPF. Opportunity cost is the cost of the next best alternative foregone. As production shifts towards one good, the opportunity cost is the amount of the other good that is given up. For instance, if a country like Brazil devotes more resources to beef production, it might produce less soybeans, and vice versa.

Exploring Comparative Advantage with Real-World Examples

Let’s consider two countries: Country A and Country B. Country A can produce 10 units of wine or 5 units of cotton. Country B can produce 3 units of wine or 4 units of cotton. While Country A has an absolute advantage in both products, it has a comparative advantage in wine, as the opportunity cost of producing wine is lower compared to cotton. Conversely, Country B, despite being less efficient overall, has a comparative advantage in cotton.

Another example can be seen between the U.S. and Mexico in the automotive industry. While the U.S. has the technology and resources to produce cars efficiently, Mexico offers a comparative advantage due to lower labor costs. Thus, many U.S. car companies have factories in Mexico.

Effects of Comparative Advantage and Trade

Specialization creates a comparative advantage: Countries focus on producing goods where they have a comparative advantage (lower opportunity cost). This leads to more efficient production, as each country is making what it’s relatively best at.

Comparative advantage increases total output: When countries specialize based on comparative advantage, the global output of goods increases. This happens because resources are used more effectively.

Lower Prices

Efficiency lowers costs of production: Specialization allows for production on a larger scale and more efficiently, which reduces the costs of goods.

Competition: International trade introduces more competition. Different countries trying to sell their goods can lead to lower prices to attract consumers.

Diverse Supply Sources Create Market Stability: Trade allows for sourcing goods from different countries, reducing dependency on a single source, which can stabilize prices of goods.

Increased Consumer Buying Power

More choices & lower prices: With lower prices due to efficient production and competition, consumers can buy more with the same amount of money. Their buying power increases.

Access to a variety of goods: International trade brings goods from different parts of the world, offering consumers a wider selection. This variety can also include better-quality or unique products not available domestically.

Improved Standard of Living

Increased consumer access to the essentials: Trade can make essential goods more affordable and accessible, improving quality of life.

Economic growth: Increased trade can lead to economic growth, creating more jobs and income opportunities, which in turn raises the standard of living.

Innovation and Technology: Trade often involves the exchange of ideas and technologies, leading to innovations that can improve productivity and quality of life.

The essence of comparative advantage in international trade is not just about producing more efficiently, but also about creating a globally interconnected economy where countries benefit from each other’s strengths. This interconnectedness lowers prices, increases the variety and quality of available products, and leads to a general uplift in standards of living through better economic conditions.

The Human Cost of Low Prices

Jobs & the labor market: Because the market favors countries that can produce goods at the lowest production costs, countries without the comparative advantage can’t compete leading to the loss of jobs. The global economy may benefit, but affected individuals suffer financially.

Technology & jobs: Breakthrough technologies can dramatically increase efficiency, that means the need for human labor in affected sectors fall, also leading to a loss of jobs. History shows us that the loss of jobs is offset by new types of jobs new technologies make possible. Cell phones put pay-phone operators out of business, but created careers like software engineers that make our phones so useful.

Environment & Safety: The lack of regulations in developing countries create a comparative advantage, sometimes at the cost of environmental pollution and workplace safety.

A consumer economy: Our market economy depends on continued production and spending. A drop in either–or both–can bring our economy to a crawl, causing a loss of income and increased unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and inequity. Critics of our market economy question its sustainability.