Commentary

WTO Bashers Would Slam The Door On The World’s Poor

on November 30, 1999, and in the Des Moines Register on December 3, 1999.>>
The anti-World Trade Organization protesters gathered for the meeting of WTO delegates in Seattle present themselves as unimpeachably high-minded. They are the champions of poor people, human rights and Mother Earth against the rapacity of corporate greed.

To protect and burnish that image, they pick their battles carefully. They rail against the WTO’s secrecy, its lack of democratic accountability, its supposed domination by corporate interests.

They complain bitterly and at great length about a handful of WTO rulings in which environmental and food-safety policies were at issue. In short, the anti-WTO protesters are claiming the moral high ground.

But it’s a claim that should be strongly resisted. Beyond the squabbling over tortuous technicalities of WTO procedures is an issue of epochal moral significance. And the Seattle marchers are on the wrong side of it.

For the first time in human history, mass poverty is no longer a necessary evil. It is avoidable. It can be eradicated. For the 1.3 billion people who must survive on incomes un der $1 a day, as well as the billions more still enduring conditions most of us would find unbearable, there is hope for deliverance. And the means of that deliverance is globalization.

Rapid alleviation of mass poverty has been demonstrated in East Asia. Consider South Korea in the 1960s, when its economy was on a par with those of West African countries. Today its output per head has reached the levels of Europe.

Or look at China, where an estimated 160 million people have been rescued from poverty in the past 20 years.

The Asian miracle, which still stands despite the region’s recent financial crisis, shows the rapid gains in human welfare possible when countries pursue a policy of “outward orientation.”

In the space of a single generation, active engagement in world markets and an openness to foreign investment have wrought breathtaking improvements in the lives of hundreds of millions.

The chief lesson of the Asian crisis is that if the miracle is to continue, Asian nations must open up their economies even further. That’s the conclusion reached by reformist leaders like President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and Premier Zhu Rongji of China.

The Asian miracle would never have been possible if the advanced industrialized countries had not opened their markets to East Asian exports. No other country can hope to follow East Asia’s example unless it keeps its markets open.

Yet the WTO bashers want to slam the trade doors shut. They urge the imposition of tighter controls on cross-border trade and capital flows, which would restrict vital access by developing countries to rich-country markets and investment.

Some call for international controls enforced by an expanded WTO, while others want the WTO contracted or eliminated to allow more market closing at the national level.

The common denominator of the plans is a more restrictive international system, one that would leave the world’s poor on the outside looking in.

Although they claim to put people over profits, the “progressive” anti-WTO forces are in fact doing the opposite. Instead of fighting vested interests, they have crawled into bed with them.

It is astounding, for instance, to hear Lori Wallach of Public Citizen, a group founded by Ralph Nader, make the case for import quotas on foreign steel. Since when did the profit margins of USX and Bethlehem Steel become a consumerist cause? Surely such alliances ought to call into question the moral pretensions of the anti-globalization crowd.

In the name of fighting corporate power, the WTO bashers provide a smoke screen for the most discreditable kinds of corporate power grabs.

But this is not the worst of it. The anti-globalization left also makes common cause with presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan and the nativist right-wingers he attracts, a constituency including many who’d be all too happy to see yellow, brown and black people around the world remain forever poor.

Doubtless many of the Seattle marchers are genuinely, passionately concerned for the welfare of the world’s poor. Yet through their opposition to open markets they have made themselves the enemies of the poor.

While hurting the very people they wish to help, they unwittingly serve the interests of special-interest hacks and xenophobic haters. That’s about as far from the moral high ground as you can get.

Brink Lindsey is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies.