Look at it this way: you can buy a piece of land, and some wheat seeds; then you can buy some books on how to grow, harvest and mill the resulting crop; then you can buy an oven and some books on making bread, and shell out the energy required to do all of this. Hey presto!—you have some bread.
Some very expensive bread that has taken an awful lot of months and huge amounts of man-hours to create. Well done you!
Alternatively, you can export your labour in return for some imports—usually money. You can then export that money in order to import a ready-sliced loaf from the baker (or supermarket).
Or, if you want to by-pass the money stage, you can export your labour to the baker in return for the loaf of bread import.
It is the imports that we want, and that applies as much to cheap electronic goods as it does to food.
Any restrictions on those imports make us poorer. Which is why, as Timmy points out quite forcefully, restricting free trade is a stupid thing to do...
At which point the absurdity of trade restrictions becomes apparent, because imports should matters to everyone involved in trade. Other countries may even be stupid enough to put up barriers to stop their citizens enjoying the lovely things that we make. But why on earth should our reaction be to put up barriers to stop us enjoying the lovely things that foreigners make?Quite. Let me illustrate this with an actual example...
Yet this is what trade negotiations are all about. The UK will reduce tariffs on electronic tat only if Taiwan will reduce tariffs on whatever we export. If you don't stop making your citizens poorer then gosh darn it we'll just make ours poorer to spite you!
It was the more-Keynesian-than-Keynes Cambridge economist, Joan Robinson, who pointed out that other people putting rocks into their harbours is no justification for putting rocks into your own.
The problem we have with trade and trade negotiations is that our politicians are simply too stupid to realise this. Simply declare free trade unilaterally, so that we can purchase whatever we want from wherever. And if Johnny Foreigner doesn't do the same then more fool Johnny Foreigner.
Rightly or wrongly*, the EU has decided—because incandescent lightbulbs are inefficient and are killing the planet—that we should all use energy-saving lightbulbs. Now, whilst a couple of large companies in the EU do make such lightbulbs, they are not as cheap as those from China.
"Hooray!", you exclaim. "We can all buy those nice Chinese lightbulbs and everybody's happy."**
Ah, well, not so much. You see, the EU slaps trade tariffs on various goods. And in the case of energy-saving lightbulbs, the EU has slapped on a 66% import tariff. So, an energy-saving lightbulb that should cost £1 now costs you £3.
The Chinese are poorer, because we buy fewer lightbulbs from them. And you are now poorer because you have had to pay 66% more for a lightbulb than you would otherwise do.
Thank you, EU!
* Wrongly. So-called "energy-saving lightbulbs" give poor light, contain mercury vapour and are generally bad for the environment. LEDs are far better on all counts. But this is just another example of governments being shit at picking winners in technology.
** Apart from those people who want a decently bright light. Or, of course, those for whom these crappy lightbulbs induce migraines.