Ethics & International Affairs Volume 13 (1999): Articles: Distributive Justice and International Trade [Abstract]

Dec 4, 1999

Public officials frequently assert that nations shape their own economic destiny. This statement implies that the international economy presents a level playing field for all participants. If the rules of globalization were somehow written in favor of certain countries, however, that would not be true, and the legitimacy of the economic system would be cast in doubt. This essay examines the structure of the international trade regime. Following John Rawls, it asserts that "justice is the first virtue of social institutions." This leads to the question: Is the trade regime just? The essay seeks to answer that question through both a theoretical and empirical exploration of the trading system. Building on the Rawlsian "original position," it sketches the fundamental principles that would underlie such a regime. It then traces the history of North-South trade relations as a case study. The essay concludes by suggesting that concerns with the trade regime's normative framework have played an important role in shaping its basic principles. But that does not mean that the regime is just. Greater transfers from North to South would be one of the major requirements of justice that currently are not being met.

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