Trade negotiations? Oh, please--wake us when it's over. Tariffs. Subsidies. Antidumping measures. Multilateral investment agreements. The eyes glaze over. Even free trade's First Cheerleader, Bill Clinton, confesses that most people think the World Trade Organization is "some rich guys' club where people get in, talk in funny language and make a bunch of rules that help the people that already have and stick it to the people that have not."
So why is it that tens of thousands of demonstrators from around the globe will make chilly, rainy Seattle a hot town next week--the scene of marches, teach-ins, street theater and uncivil disobedience? This vintage '60s protest fest is prompted, incongruously, by the first American gathering of the WTO, a sober, 135-nation group that sets the rules for international commerce. Thousands of trade ministers, politicians and their staffs will hunker down by Puget Sound to launch a new multiyear round of wrangling over how to promote exports--and, as much as possible, avoid one another's imports.
The Geneva-based WTO is both traffic cop and top court of the global economy. And as shown by China's bid for admission last week, the organization seems about to extend its gospel of no-pain, no-gain capitalism across the planet. The WTO's 36,000 pages of regulations reach into far-flung crannies of human existence. Can Malaysian fishermen export their shrimp to the U.S. even if their nets lack escape hatches for endangered turtles? Yes. Can Massachusetts refuse to buy products from companies that do business in Myanmar? No. Do American corporations get an illegal export subsidy by setting up legal offshore tax shelters? Yes. Can the French block our hormone-fed beef? No. Rule breakers are punished--in France's case by a hike in the tariffs on Roquefort cheese, among other goodies.
In the abstract, free trade is feel-good fellowship. Trash the tariffs and, globally, consumers profit from lower prices. Political enemies t...