Discussion paper

DP17301 Understanding of Trade

This paper sheds new light on two questions: How do people perceive and understand trade and trade policy, and what shapes their support for different trade policies? Despite extensive research documenting the efficiency gains from trade and its distributional impacts on different groups of workers, firms, and consumers, we still need to uncover how people perceive these various effects of trade. Trade
involves many trade-offs. When forming their views on trade policy, people have to balance their roles as consumers and workers, consider both personal and broader economic and societal impacts, and evaluate concerns of efficiency and equity. Which of these considerations matters most? Using new large-scale surveys and experiments, I highlight three main findings. First, while earlier work has established that consumer gains from trade are diffuse and job losses are concentrated, I directly show the impact of these two considerations on people’s views about trade. I find that perceived job risks matter more for policy views than perceived consumer gains. Second, beyond their own material self-interest, people care about the broader efficiency gains and adverse distributional consequences from trade. Support for free trade is best predicted by the belief that trade generates efficiency gains. Concerns about the adverse distributional consequences of trade do not necessarily reduce support for free trade: instead, they increase support for compensatory redistribution. These results also highlight the importance of compensatory redistribution as an indissociable part of trade policy in people’s minds. Third, personal exposure to trade shapes policy views in two ways: directly (through self-interest) and indirectly by changing people’s perceptions of trade’s broader efficiency and distributional implications.


Stantcheva, S (2022), ‘DP17301 Understanding of Trade‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 17301. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp17301