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CATO Commentary on World Trade OrganizationBy William Westmiller

If the prospect for an "Earth Federation" is somewhere in the Star Trek future, a worldwide consensus on trade and commerce is several steps ahead of the next millennium. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an amazing cooperative of 134 nations, devoted exclusively to free trade. The WTO is sufficiently well established as to warrant the voluntary abrogation of sovereignty by dozens of nations around the globe.
The charter for this limited world government of commerce is so delicious that it would warm the cockles of even the most ardent CATO Institute free trader. Enticed by the prospect of new markets for domestic industry, nations around the globe have conceded to the WTO an extremely broad authority to reduce and eliminate both national and international trade barriers. After decades of negotiating rounds, the entire world -- excepting the People's Republic of China --has essentially endorsed the capitalist creed. You might imagine that the entire Chicago School of Economics had moved itself to WTO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Reason Magazine should have its free market bureau located next door.
There's a case to be made for giving the WTO a large measure of the credit for our recent domestic economic expansion. More than Bill Clinton, or even Congress, the WTO has made it possible for the United States to benefit enormously from expanded import and export opportunities. Without the broad and stable commitments of so many nations, American negotiators would have been reduced to quibbling over every minor trade concession that might be exchanged with each and every foreign administration. In ascending to the WTO pact, every national government must agree to reduce fees and tariffs, privatize national industries, and eliminate regulations that impede free exchange of goods and services. Without that commitment to commercial common sense, American corporations would be languishing in a confined and increasingly stifled domestic marketplace.
It's easy to tarnish the World Trade Organization as just another threatening acronym in a long list of capital letters: GATT, GAST, NAFTA, G-7+1, IMF and others. Many people will imagine these institutions as a league of high-rolling elites who are far beyond our influence and up to no good. But, all of them are dominated by the United States, subject to approval and oversight by your representative in Congress (and your President), and strongly motivated by constituent viewpoints and opinions. Among the most strident opponents are protectionists who latch onto isolated domestic problems that need an evil foreign villain. Many are patriots who fear any hint at the possible loss of American sovereignty. Their fear and their aim is badly misplaced.
In effect, the World Trade Organization is a defender of individual private property rights against both benevolent and tyrannic national governments. The right to property and voluntary exchange is a fundamental and universal human right, not an exclusive American privilege. There is no merit in political efforts to restrict individual rights for the benefit of a particular industry or group. This is what "special interest" is all about. Restrictions on steel imports may temporarily benefit a few companies or unions, but it will be at the expense of every other consumer across the nation. Add up the increased cost of autos, tools or construction and you'll find that the damage to all Americans far exceeds any benefits that might be apparent to a few small segments of the steel industry. Protectionism doesn't work, never has and never will. It's just another way of restricting individual liberty.
As in any cooperative human endeavor, there is always room for improvement in methods and procedures. What errors and omissions exist in the WTO are nothing compared to the faults and failures of other international governing bodies. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a good example of bad intentions applied on a world scale. This institution, as with others, is still subject to modification and change motivated by concerned Americans. Citizen outrage at the most recent IMF demands for multi-billions of taxpayer dollars caused significant changes in the operating rules of that organization. They got the mega-bucks, but not without important reforms and constraints demanded by concerned American citizens. They adapted, and will continually adapt, to the demands of those who take the time to make their views known.
Whether "Earth Gov" will be benevolent or tyrannical is being decided every day. Many champions of liberty have opted out of the debate, inclining either toward international anarchy or nationalistic sovereignty. The world won't wait for the best ideas, but it will respond to a chorus supporting an idea whose time has come. The concepts of Individual rights to property and free trade have many friends around the world. If we all opt into the future, it could be very bright.


©1999, William Westmiller
California Coordinator of the Republican Liberty Caucus
Past Candidate for the Republican Nomination for (24 CA) Congress
Former National Secretary, California Chairman, Libertarian Party
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