Comparative Advantage Theory and Examples

What Makes One Country Better Than Another

multiethnic work group
Comparative advantage makes international trade a win-win for everyone. Photo by visualspace/Getty Images

Comparative advantage is when a country produces a good or service for a lower opportunity cost than other countries. Opportunity cost measures a trade off. A country with a comparative advantage makes the trade off worth it. The advantages of buying their good or service outweigh the disadvantages. The country may not necessarily the best at producing something. But the good or service has a low opportunity cost for other countries to import.

For example, oil-producing nations have a comparative advantage in chemicals. Their locally-produced oil provides a cheap source of material for the chemicals when compared to countries without it.  A lot of the raw ingredients are produced in the oil distillery process. As a result, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Mexico are competitive with U.S. chemical production firms. Their chemicals are inexpensive, making their opportunity cost low. 

Another example is India's call centers. U.S. companies buy this service because it is cheaper than locating the call center in America. Indian call centers aren't better than U.S. call centers. Their workers don't always speak English very clearly. But they provide the service cheaply enough to make the tradeoff worth it. 

In the past, comparative advantages occurred more in goods and rarely in services. That's because goods are easier to export. But telecommunication technology like the internet is making services easier to export.

That includes call centers, banking, and entertainment.

Theory of Comparative Advantage

Eighteenth-century economist David Ricardo created the theory of comparative advantage. He argued that a country boosts its economic growth the most by focusing on the industry in which it has the largest comparative advantage.

 

For example, England was able to manufacture cheap cloth. Portugal had the right conditions to make cheap wine. Ricardo predicted that England would stop making wine and Portugal stop making cloth. He was right. England made more money by trading its cloth for Portugal's wine, and vice versa. It would have cost England a lot to make all the wine it needed because it lacked the climate. Portugal didn't have the manufacturing ability to make cheap cloth. Therefore, they both benefited by trading what they produced the most efficiently.

This theory of comparative advantage became the rationale for free trade agreements. Ricardo developed his theory to combat trade restrictions on imported wheat in England. He argued that it made no sense to restrict low-cost and high-quality wheat from countries with the right climate and soil conditions. England would receive more value by exporting products that required skilled labor and machinery. It could receive more wheat in trade than it could grow on its own. 

The theory of comparative advantage explains why trade protectionism doesn't work in the long run. Political leaders are always under pressure from their local constituents to protect jobs from international competition by raising tariffs.

But that’s only a temporary fix. In the long run, it hurts the nation's competitiveness. It allows the country to waste resources on unsuccessful industries. It also forces consumers to pay higher prices to buy domestic goods.

David Ricardo started out as a successful stockbroker, making $100 million in today's dollars. After reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, he became an economist. He was the first person to point out that significant increases in the money supply create inflation. This theory is known as monetarism

He also developed the law of diminishing marginal returns. That’s one of the most important concepts in microeconomics. It states that there is a point in production where increased output is no longer worth the additional input in raw materials. 

Example 

One of America's comparative advantages is its large land mass bordered by two oceans.

It also has lots of fresh water, arable land, and available oil. Most important, it has a diverse population with a common language and national laws. Those combined advantages create the power of the U.S. economy.

U.S. businesses benefit from cheap natural resources and protection from land invasion. The diverse population provides a large test market for new products. That's helped the United States became a global leader in banking, aerospace, defense equipment, and technology. For more, see The Four Major Things the United States Is Good at Producing and How Silicon Valley ls America's Innovative Advantage.

Comparative Advantage vs. Absolute Advantage

Absolute advantage is anything a country does more efficiently than other countries. Countries that are blessed with an abundance of farmland, fresh water, and oil reserves have an absolute advantage in agriculture, gasoline, and petrochemicals. 

Just because a country has an absolute advantage in an industry doesn't mean that it will be its comparative advantage. That depends on what the trading opportunity costs are. Say its neighbor has no oil but lots of farmland and fresh water. The neighbor is willing to trade a lot of food in exchange for oil. Now the first country has a comparative advantage in oil. It can get more food from its neighbor by trading it for oil than it could produce on its own. 

Comparative Advantage vs. Competitive Advantage

Competitive advantage is what a country, business, or individual does that provides a better value to consumers than its competitors. There are three strategies companies use to gain a competitive advantage. First, they could be the low-cost provider. Second, they could offer a better product or service. Third, they could focus on one type of customer. (Source:"Free Trade and Protection: Why Do Nations Trade?" HSC Online.)

How It Affects You

Comparative advantage is what you do best while also giving up the least. For example, if you’re a great plumber and a great babysitter, your comparative advantage is plumbing. That's because you’ll make more money as a plumber. You can hire an hour of babysitting services for less than you would make doing an hour of plumbing. Your opportunity cost of babysitting is high. Every hour you spend babysitting is an hour’s worth of lost revenue you could have gotten on a plumbing job.  

Absolute advantage is anything you do more efficiently than anyone else. You’re better than everyone else in the neighborhood at both plumbing and babysitting. But plumbing is your comparative advantage. That's because you only give up low-cost babysitting jobs to pursue your well-paid plumbing career.

Competitive advantage is what makes you more attractive to consumers than your competitors. For example, you are in demand to provide both plumbing and a babysitting services. But it’s not necessarily because you do them better (absolute advantage). It's because you charge less.