Seattle Surprise

The WTO protests caught free-traders off guard. They shouldn't have.


When protesters descended on Seattle in the tens of thousands, blocking World Trade Organization delegates and ordinary citizens from going about their business and, in some high-profile cases, wrecking "corporate" stores, the mainstream media and political establishment finally woke up to an ideological movement that has been building for at least a decade. International trade is no longer just a matter of interest-group politics. It has become a highly charged symbol of markets in general and, even more broadly, of the cultural dynamism that they unleash.

The protests in Seattle were not about the World Trade Organization per se. They were, as Tom Hayden told a rally in Seattle, about "everything." Some protesters were against development, some against growth, some against low-wage work in poor countries, some against resource extraction, some against consumption, some against biotechnology, some against killing animals, some against highly restrictive intellectual property laws, some against property rights of any kind. Just about all of them were against change without political regulation.

"It is no longer a debate about trade at all, but rather a debate about globalization, a process that many now understand affects not only traditional economic factors such as jobs and incomes but also the food people eat, the air they breathe, the quality of medical care, and the social and cultural milieu in which they live," wrote The Washington Post's left-wing business writer Steven Pearlstein. Into his list of woes Pearlstein lumped "the loss of the corner bookstore," a development that has nothing to do with globalization but is a touchstone example of economic and cultural dynamism.

Pearlstein and Hayden are right: This argument has precious little to do with the particulars of the WTO. It is indeed about "everything," or close to it. The trade diplomats' Seattle meeting merely provided a focal point for protest. It gave activists an easily accessible place to gather, and a promise that cameras would be there to greet them.

Seattle was a sharp reminder that free trade–like free speech, the emancipation of women, or scientific inquiry–is not inevitable. We do not live, through some irresistible force of nature, in what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman smugly calls a "world without walls." Walls come down largely through acts of political will, and they can be erected the same way.

The world is full of dedicated believers–many of them loud, affluent, technologically savvy, and well-organized–who will fight to build walls against people, ideas, or goods they don't like and who will seek to trap others in political regimes from which they cannot escape. In Seattle, we saw a small sample of the many, many people who are determined to maintain a particular "social and cultural milieu" against the choices of their fellow citizens and the aspirations of human beings around the world.

What was at stake in Seattle is far more important to the peace, prosperity, and happiness of the world's billions than George W. Bush's reading list, John McCain's temper, Hillary Clinton's Senate aspirations, or the latest tax cut proposal for parents of young children. Seattle was about "everything." It was a protest meticulously orchestrated by people determined to stamp out the technological creativity, capital mobility, competitive production, and consumer choice that lead to rising living standards. It was designed to substitute the "democracy" of interest- group lobbying and ideological protest for the individual pursuit of happiness.

As some critics charged, the Seattle protesters represented many, often incompatible agendas. What united them was the shared craving for a more static, regulated world. What divides them is the question of what that world should look like.

With the exception of self-interested union members, the Seattle protesters were mostly from the political left, which sees international trade as an issue it can leverage to undermine the widespread belief that market exchange (or prosperity itself) is good.

"The market has to be re-embedded, has to become a subordinate part of the society again," said Walden Bello, a professor at the University of the Philippines in a forum on globalization published in The Nation's pre-Seattle special issue. "Values like social solidarity have precedence over the free market."

In the struggle to subordinate market choices to "social solidarity," the left is understandably worried that the current anti-trade standard bearer is Pat Buchanan, a man whose social values are tribalist and traditional. In their discussion of news coverage of the protests, the leftist media critics at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting zapped CNN and others for paying too much attention to Buchanan: "Though right-wing nationalists appeared to make up–at most–an infinitesimal fraction of the actual protesters in Seattle's streets, the media seemed to anoint Buchanan as a major leader of the anti-WTO movement." In one important sense, Buchanan is just that. He is the only prominent presidential candidate advocating the anti-trade agenda of the protesters, the only agenda they share. It's not surprising, therefore, that Beltway-oriented shows like Inside Politics interviewed him rather than, say, Walden Bello or Tom Hayden.

While Buchanan's tribalism may not blend well with multiculturalism or gay rights, his isolationist ideals are consistent with the far green's "bioregionalist" vision of local self-sufficiency. Nor is his contempt for poor countries out of place. A strong theme running through the anti-globalization critique is that higher living standards in developing countries would be a disaster. At a Seattle teach-in, reports Nina Shapiro in Salon, Swedish activist Helena Norberg-Hodge complained that "in the South [meaning Africa, Asia, and Latin America, though the same could be said of Buchanan's beloved Dixie], this globalization has taken the form of development." Using typical green rhetoric, Norberg-Hodge called for "localization" and "self-reliant" subsistence agriculture–a prescription that would have left Sweden impoverished but is apparently good enough for Third World peasants.

Neither compassion nor consistency is the anti-trade forces' strong suit. "It's unthinkable that the billions of people we expect to greet in the next century should all be encouraged to strive for the American dream of a suburban house, a car and everything that Wal-Mart or Sears sells," writes Los Angeles Times technology columnist Gary Chapman in an article on the protests. "Under that model, the human race would devour the Earth very rapidly, as we seem to be doing already."

Chapman, who lives in Austin, Texas, wasn't in Seattle himself. He tells subscribers to his e-mail list that he and his wife spent Thanksgiving week in New York "doing nothing but touristy things and getting an annual cultural fix–seeing plays, going to concerts, movies, museums, visiting the Christmas lights at the Bronx Zoo, etc." I'm sure their cultural enrichment, along with a "sumptuous" Thanksgiving dinner, would be of great comfort to the world's peasant farmers–the people whom Chapman is determined to keep barefoot behind their water buffalo lest their upward mobility disturb his cultural milieu.

Attitudes like Chapman's and Norberg-Hodge's naturally infuriate representatives of poor countries. The protesters, wrote Lim Say Boon in the South China Morning Post, were "rich bullies… determined to maintain their lifestyle fetishes," with disdain for Third World workers: "They would be quite happy to keep Asians in their place to satisfy their Hollywood stereotypes of what we are supposed to be. The holiday experience would not be complete without the sight of Chinese living in boats off Hong Kong; Ibans in their jungle long-house in Sarawak; or Javanese women toiling in the rice fields. The parents of these new racists would have cooed `how quaint'–as if gawking at animals in the zoo. To this grunge generation, this would be preserving indigenous cultures. Same old racism in new, dishonest packaging if you ask me."

This critique isn't entirely fair, but the anger behind it is heartfelt. Global markets are giving poor countries a shot at prosperity, and the attack on trade is an attack on that hope. The protesters, an Indian participant told Salon's Shapiro, were "like Marie Antoinette, saying let them have cake." Self-sufficiency sounds romantic and independent, but it is a prescription for poverty. While many protesters seemed genuinely concerned about the fate of the world's poor, the policies they advocate would cut off the only processes through which living standards improve.

Rising living standards–whether in a village, a region, a nation, or the world–depend first on specialization: on letting people concentrate on what they do best and trade with others who specialize in other things. The part of this process that is hard for anyone but economists to understand, because it is not intuitive, is that success doesn't depend on doing something better than the person (or country) with whom you're trading. As my economist husband likes to put it, there's a good reason that Michael Jordan doesn't mow his own lawn. Jordan might be the best mower in the world, but his time is more productively used elsewhere. As societies grow richer, they also become more and more specialized, a process that is both cause and effect.

The countries of the Third World want the chance, in effect, to cut the grass for the basketball stars of the rich West. Their workers would like the opportunity to specialize in labor-intensive drudgery that creates products for which people elsewhere are willing to trade. Through that trade, the poor people of the world can obtain goods produced in capital- and skill-intensive industries abroad–pharmaceuticals, refrigerators, even movies and basketball–and the capital needed to invest in productive infrastructure. Without the specialization and exchange, these products would be impossible to obtain. So what look like bad jobs at bad wages are in fact the paths out of poverty.

Would it be better if poor people around the world could have fun at work? Absolutely. Unfortunately, the choice they face today is not between drudgery and fun. It is between drudgery without exchange–self-sufficiency without the bonus paid by other people to avoid it–and drudgery with the possibility to accumulate the skills, property, and perhaps capital that represent a better life.

There are other, more upbeat, aspects of trade. One is the creativity encouraged by competition: the open-ended push to do more, better, with less. The vast improvements in the quality of products from shoes to automobiles over the past 20 years has made us all effectively richer.

And that improvement is not just a matter of competition. Worldwide markets also foster the exchange of knowledge. They bring more minds, working from more different perspectives, to every problem. International exchange carries knowledge through words, of course, but also through experience–as people move across companies and countries–and through products, customs, and services themselves.

These processes are abstract and mysterious when they happen to other people. And they are so particular, real, and incremental that we barely notice them when we experience them ourselves. We assume that toys have always been cheap, clothes always abundant, menus always varied, and Japan always rich. We get lulled into believing that free trade with poor people will make us poor ourselves, forgetting that we live in the world's largest, and most prosperous, free trade zone, and that the people of California have not been immiserated by the rising wealth of Georgia.

Seattle was about "everything." Most particularly, it was about whether we will allow the complacency that comes with affluence–the assumption that good times will continue because the institutions that support them are inevitable–to wreck not only our own hopes but the hopes of humanity worldwide. People who want to build walls never, ever give up.