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July 1997
Volume 15, Number 7

Party Time at the WTO
James Sheehan

The World Trade Organization has a fantastic but undeserved reputation in international circles as the world's premier institution of free trade. Despite all of the WTO's pretensions to greatness, this glorified trade-management bureaucracy exists only to promote the interests of well-heeled trade lobbyists and political power brokers.

It didn't take long for the geo-political trade cartel to show its true colors. Government officials and their special interest clients romped through Singapore in a week-long extravaganza funded by the world's taxpayers.

Here was the first meeting of the WTO, attended by more than 4,000 delegates from 125 countries. In addition, hoards of ideologues descended upon Singapore, each demanding that world trade regulators embrace some new wacky doctrine of economic control. Environmentalists, animal rights advocates, feminists, and other opponents of the market were encouraged to register for participation as non-governmental observers (or NGOs in UN-speak). With more than 100 registered groups, the affair took on the feel of a carnival.

The globe-trotting left-wing NGOs are accustomed to being treated like official delegates. And the WTO did not dissuade the freeloaders from making themselves at home. The government of Singapore made sure that its most lavish hotels were available at discount rates, at which all shuttle buses, cuisine, and telephones were free.

To facilitate the activists' work, the WTO set up an elaborate "NGO Center," where they could conduct meetings, press conferences, and seminars. The sworn enemies of economic progress were treated to all of the latest technological gadgetry by their allies in the bureaucracy. Computers, Internet software and printers were all available, along with a technical support staff.

With free photocopying facilities and un-recycled paper, the NGOs produced reams of anti-capitalist propaganda. Giant television monitors allowed the activists to view live conference proceedings. NGOs were given free air time to berate multinational corporations and consumers for destroying Mother Earth.

Seemingly ungrateful for their first-class accommodations, the NGOs used their free television commercials to carp about how they had been "shut out" from public participation. How so? They were not yet exercising total dominance over world trade.

Using borrowed equipment, NGOs denounced the WTO and lectured the trade delegates: "We strongly condemn the failure of the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment to produce any significant results during the last two years." Did they expect the destruction of world capitalism in a mere two years?

The lighted cityscape provided beautiful vistas for the conference-goers, aided by the Singapore government's command that all building lights be kept burning all night. Though environmentalists want to stop American families from using so much energy, they raised no objection to this wasteful exercise of government power. The view was just too nice.

Entertainment for the summiteers was provided by stilt-walking clowns and Indian snake charmers. "ONE: The WTO Show" was broadcast on Singaporean television. It was a live performance by Asian and African musicians in 20 different languages. According to the program, the performance was intended to educate people "how diverse elements from all over the world blend together as ONE."

But this ONEness was apparently too much for some in the audience, who at first appeared stunned by the cacophonic blare of Indian, Caribbean, and Indonesian folk songs, yelped out by tribesmen in outlandish costumes. The audience of bureaucrats eventually settled into a mass blank stare at the strange multiculturalist concoction taking place before them.

The WTO summit's grand finale was a closing night gala dinner. Every wine goblet overflowed. Not a soul went hungry, especially the Greenpeace representatives (who chomped on rare steak in violation of their core principles). After a full week of denouncing over-consumption and greed, the NGOs were too weary to notice the sheer size of their taxpayer-subsidized feast--enough to feed an African nation for a day.

What has happened to Richard Cobden's ideal of "free trade, good will, and peace among nations"? These meetings--like the WTO itself--do not foster good will and efficiency but conflict and waste. They are a species of what in 1959 Wilhelm Roepke called "false internationalism," in which capitalist trade is replaced by government negotiation, ending in a "waste of time, money, and talent."

Such global shindigs, Roepke noted, were unheard of until the period between the two world wars. The "era of decay of the world economy was at the same time the era of international economic conferences. Their minutes and documents fill the archives while the practical results amount to nothing." He coined the term "conferencitis," that is, "the same old paper-rustling and clap-trap that the world has grown sick of during the last two decades."

What a blessing for liberty that the global elites failed to create a global trade regulator until two years ago. The glory of world trade is that it needs no global bureaucracy. True to its statist origins, the WTO now courts every pressure group, extremist, and would-be dictator of the world economy. If the Singapore summit is any indication, the future of world trade is grim indeed, so long as the World Trade Organization is in charge of it.

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James Sheehan is an MBA student at Duke University

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