TCS Daily

Protesters Should Love WTO

By Joshua Livestro - September 10, 2003 12:00 AM

With the WTO meeting this week, the anarchists, statists and utopians who make up the anti-globalization movement are drawing up their battle plans for the next stage in their fight against capitalist world domination. But as they gather in the Cafe Ché Guevara (where else?) in Mexico City for the opening meeting of their campaign, their ears will still be ringing with the criticism of one of their own. In an article published a couple of weeks ago in the French newspaper Libération, Jacques Nikonoff, the president of that activist group Attac, lambasted the movement for its lack of democratic legitimacy, the implausibility of its policy proposals, the weakness of its alliances and, most of all, the lack of clarity about its identity.


Most of Nikonoff's critique seems well-targeted. But on the last point I beg to differ. The problem is not that the public doesn't know what the protesters stand for. On the contrary, most people would in fact have little difficulty identifying the anti-globalization movement with two distinct political positions: the protesters claim to defend the interests of the poor (both individuals and countries) against those of the rich, and to defend the interests of democracy against the perceived threat of capitalism. 


The problem is rather that these premises lead the protesters to some very strange conclusions. Why, for instance, the anti-globalization movement should try to disrupt the work of the World Trade Organization is a mystery to me. It would seem far more logical for the protesters to defend the work of the WTO against its critics. After all, the WTO is exactly the sort of global, rule-based institution the movement professes to support. The poorest countries have as great a chance of fair treatment within the WTO system as they are likely to get under any alternative arrangement. All countries are equally bound by the decisions of the WTO appeals panel. And all stand to gain from its work towards a world of unrestricted free trade. The rising tide of global capitalism really does lift all boats, especially those of the least well off.


Take the position of the poorest nations. As a study by World Bank researchers David Dollar and Aart Kraay shows, the worldwide economic growth of the last decades (a direct result of global free trade) has benefited the least developed countries as much as their richer cousins. The progressive dismantling of national tariff barriers and export subsidies during various GATT and WTO trade rounds has produced one of the longest periods of sustained global economic growth in history. As a result, life expectancy in the least developed countries has nearly doubled over the past 30 years. In that same period, the income levels of the poorest 20 percent of the world's population have doubled, growing faster in fact than those of the richest 20 percent. There is still an awfully long way to go, but there is no doubt that free trade is delivering spectacular results in the fight against poverty, ignorance and squalor.


For the sake of the poor, the protesters should learn to love free trade, not fight it. Especially free trade in the form of foreign direct investment in developing countries. As Johan Norberg argued in a recent article in the Spectator, multinational companies like Nike investing in developing countries not only pay better wages than local competitors, they also tend to invest more in the health and education of their work force. Multinationals, in short, are a driving force behind the emancipation of the poor in some of the poorest parts of the world.


Ergo: the protesters should also learn to love multinational corporations, both for the sake of the poor in the least developed nations and for the sake of good government within those countries. With their transparency and accountability to shareholders and pressure groups alike, multinational corporations provide an important model of good governance where such models are in short supply. A Nigerian journalist who visited Holland last year made this point forcefully when he remarked that Nigerians trust the board of Coca-Cola more than they trust their own government.


And yes, they should even learn to love McDonald's. They don't have to eat there, but they should at least recognize that companies like McDonald's provide the least well off in the developed world with the chance to work their way out of poverty. Study after study shows that any work is better than no work for those on the bottom rung of society's ladder. Work provides greater financial rewards than benefits ever could. Work provides the best escape route out of a culture of hopelessness. Work even increases the chances of the children of the least well off of improving their position in life. So let them flip burgers. Or work the night shift. For the sake of the poor, the protesters should demand more McJobs, not fewer.


If they really care about the poor, the protesters would do well to recognize these truths. If they love the poor as they love themselves, they must learn to love the WTO, free trade, and multinational corporations. Forget Ché Guevara -- their new hero should be Ronald McDonald. And their battle cry in the fight against global poverty should be not "Down with capitalism" but "Let them flip burgers!"

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