Night Thoughts About Seattle

by Jonathan Wallace

The WTO is good

A vivid memory from early in life was the first page of a book on the history of civilization, with illustrations of letters from the Phoenician, Greek and other alphabets. The Phoenicians were portrayed as peaceful commercial seafarers, trading their goods and spreading culture and information through-out the known world.

By definition, commerce involves diversity. If I grew oranges or could mine onyx near my home, I would have no reason to go and get it from you. If you have goods that are so different than mine, the chances are excellent your gods are different too: also your poetry and moral rulebook. Commerce is inherently broadening; to buy your goods, I must talk to you; if I talk to you long enough, I learn something about you; by the time I return to my home I am changed.

Commerce involved an early form of the prisoner's dilemma. If I expect to see you only once, I may cheat you, or take your goods from you by violence. But if I expect to have a series of profitable trade encounters, I must moderate my behavior, meet you on that profitable middle ground, and make you feel it would be worth your while to see me again. Human cooperation is born, which may eventually spread to other spheres than the commercial.

However, even with the best of intentions, you and I may have some misunderstandings. You sold me some grain, which we moved to a silo near the port, which burned down the night before I was to sail. At that moment, was it your grain or mine?

Any student of human rulebooks could profitably spend a few hours learning about international custom pertaining to shipping and the origin of practices like "fob" ("freight on board") and "cif" ("cost, insurance, freight") which originated to solve exactly these dilemmas. If the wheat was "fob", it didn't belong to me, and the risk didn't pass, until it was loaded on my ship. If our deal was "cif", then the loss caused by the fire in the silo was all mine.

Businessmen are inherently practical, and they originated very clear rulebooks to govern the transactions they wished to pursue on a fair and equal basis.

I doubt many of the demonstrators in Seattle would have said they were against rulebooks for the resolution of international trade disputes. Commercial rulebooks are deeply rooted and have wide acceptance in this country, even amongst arch-conservatives and libertarians. In fact, our constitution, revered by almost every American on any side of the WTO dispute, contains an architecture for the resolution of trade problems domestically: it is called the commerce clause.

This provision creates the architecture for a national set of rules about commerce which the states cannot overcome. I remember cases which held that a state could not require trucks to be wider or have more wheels than national regulations required. Another memorable case held that a butter producing state could not require that margarine sold in the state be dyed pink instead of yellow.

The governing philosophy was to overcome state independence and prevent the states from holding themselves out of a federal system of commerce. An unspoken subtext of the commerce clause--its metadata--was the idea that commerce at a national level is good, that it contributes to the strength of the economy, and to peace through the interconnectedness of human beings.

If you believe that commercial rulebooks, as promoted by the commerce clause, are good, then the question is, why would we want them to stop at the border and a Lockean "state of nature" exist outside? "Want of a common judge with authority puts all men in a state of nature," said Locke in his Second Treatise of Government. The most common answer to this question is that we do not want international commercial rules if we think we are better than everyone else and have more to gain by not agreeing to them. But someone who is completely unmotivated by altruism may be drawn into endorsing international rulebooks through pure greed: first, a desire to export goods for profit; then a shocking moment of perception when things go wrong that it is not desirable to function in a state of nature outside U.S. borders.

The WTO, as an organization created to write international commercial rulebooks, is subject to two types of criticism: first, that it suffers from the same flaws as our democracy; second, that it presents some special dangers we do not face under our existing system.

The basis of much of the current criticism of the WTO falls into the first category: the WTO's critics on the left believe that it is an organization dominated by the multinationals which is working to make the poor more impoverished, and harm organized labor, by removing all barriers to cheap labor world-wide. But this rhetoric is familiar, wielded by people who have said, over the years, that American democracy is dominated by these same interests. Though many of them would not agree with the premise, the WTO really represents nothing more than an extension of the existing system globally--a world-wide commerce clause.

Even the right wing arguments based on yielding sovereignty fall into this same category. Yes, we trade some independence in binding ourselves to an international rulebook, but not more significantly than a state gives up as part of the United States, or an individual who chooses to continue living in the U.S.

When I search for a unique criticism that the WTO is worse than the system we already live under, the main one I can come up with is that the WTO has only partial jurisdiction. Since all issues are interconnected--labor, poverty, the environment, equity to businessmen, their workers, their customers, and the public in general--to some extent we are harmed by the fact that the WTO can make decisions only about an arbitrary piece of this fabric, and disclaim jurisdiction for the rest. For, if we are offended by the environmental impact of a labor law under consideration by the U.S. Congress, we at least have the comfort of knowing that the same body has jurisdiction to address this other issue and all other related matters as well.

Which is not really an argument against the WTO but in favor of a democratically constituted world government, some day. One of the two major constituencies in the Seattle demonstrations (the other was labor) was the environmental group who want the WTO to be sensitive to the needs of the planet. These problems-- most prominently global warming--can not be successfully addressed at the national level. Global environmental concerns are a prisoner's dilemma; any cooperating country sees the sucker's pay-off when another country defects without consequences, due to the lack of a judge with authority. It is an easy and safe prediction, not to be proven in my lifetime, that we will either encounter disaster or one day come to the realization that democratic government makes most sense--sole sense, by that time--at the planetary level.

Dissent against the WTO is good

Through the lens of our media, we tend to see things in black and white: demonstrators think the WTO should not exist; they are there to destroy it. Some undoubtedly were, but we should not lose sight of the fact that dissent is frequently modulated to influence the views and actions of a government, not to end it.

If the WTO represents a step in the direction of democratic world government, it is good in itself for that reason. But no progress comes without a loss of something else, and the WTO, as the environmental constituency loudly and eloquently pointed out, represents a step back from the sophistication of American environmental policy. A frequently given example is the WTO's invalidation of American rules on turtle exclusion devices for shrimp boats. Here again is a problem requiring a global solution, as turtles do not know when they are in American waters. But the proper way to address this failure is to work, both in the WTO's hallways and in the streets, to raise international awareness and pressure the organization in the direction you want it to go. Not to tear it down.