Enemies of the WTO

The search for better economic policy.
Nov. 24 1999 3:30 AM

Enemies of the WTO

Bogus arguments against the World Trade Organization.

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For surely the most striking thing about the horrors of globalization illustrated in those photos is that for most of the world's people they represent aspirations, things they wish they had, rather than ominous threats. Traffic jams and ugly interchanges are annoying, but most people would gladly accept that annoyance in exchange for the freedom that comes with owning a car (and more to the point, being wealthy enough to afford one). Tract housing and apartment buildings may be ugly, but they are paradise compared with village huts or urban shanties. Wearing a suit and working at a computer in an office tower are, believe it or not, preferable to backbreaking work in a rice paddy.

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N ow, of course what is good for the individual is not always good if everyone else does it too. Having a big house with a garden is nice, but seeing the countryside covered by suburban sprawl is not, and we might all be better off if we could all agree (or be convinced by tax incentives) to take up a bit less space. The same goes for cultural choices: Boston residents who indulge their taste for Canadian divas do undermine the prospects of local singer-songwriters and might be collectively better off if local radio stations had some kind of cultural content rule. But there is a very fine line between such arguments for collective action and supercilious paternalism, especially when cultural matters are concerned; are we warning societies about unintended consequences or are we simply disagreeing with individual tastes?

And it is very clear from the advertisement in the Times that the Turning Point Project--and the whole movement it represents--are on the supercilious side of that line. Although they talk of freedom and democracy, their key demand is that individuals be prevented from getting what they want--that governments be free, nay encouraged, to deny individuals the right to drive cars, work in offices, eat cheeseburgers, and watch satellite TV. Why? Presumably because people will really be happier if they retain their traditional "language, dress, and values." Thus, Spaniards would be happier if they still dressed in black and let narrow-minded priests run their lives, and residents of the American South would be happier if planters still sipped mint juleps, wore white suits, and accepted traditional deference from sharecroppers ... instead of living in this "dreary" modern world in which Madrid is just like Paris and Atlanta is just like New York.

Well, somehow I suspect that the residents of Madrid and Atlanta, while they may regret some loss of tradition, prefer modernity. And you know what? I think the rest of the world has the right to make the same choice.

Paul Krugman writes a twice-weekly column for the New York Times and is professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. His home page contains links to many of his other articles and essays.

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