Volume 2, Number 1 (2009)

Ten Pages that Changed the World: Deconstructing Ricardo

Richard Peet

Clark University


Powerful ideas that shape the world become taken-for-granted verities, in two senses of the term: as the only world that is known; and as the only world that can be imagined. When hegemony controls the imagination, fundamental criticism becomes difficult, and perhaps, impossible. Yet what if there were flaws in the original idea, from which new worlds were constructed, that have materialized in a political-economic geography beset with seemingly unsolvable problems? For example, what if there have always been fundamental flaws in the free trade, open market, competitive, global system that dominates both the world as we know it and the conventional political-economic-geographical thought we know it through? This article speculates that a psycho-discursive act of deconstruction might unravel the entire, subsequent discourse. It aims deconstruction at a founding statement in the free trade, global ideal, by looking critically at David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. Ricardo’s argument that specialization and free trade are universally beneficial, became a founding premise of conventional economic theory and a basic prescription of liberal and neoliberal development policy. The article looks critically: at the logical consistency and representational accuracy of Ricardo’s theory, especially the claim that all participants benefit from participation in a free trading scheme, so that trade brings about a far better world. The article reaches two main, critical conclusions: free trade theory based in comparative advantage has, from the beginning, been an ideology for creating economic spaces open to domination by powerful, leading countries; economics and economic geography have, since their classical beginnings, been biased in that their founding statements reverse the reality they pretend accurately to represent.

Keywords: comparative advantage, discourse, economics, economic geography, free trade, hegemony, ideology