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Archive for May 15th, 2020

Last year, I released this video to help explain why the World Trade Organization has been a good deal for the United States.

My argument was – and still is – very straightforward, and it’s based on two simple propositions.

  1. Free trade is good because societies are more prosperous with free markets and open competition.
  2. The WTO has helped nations move in that direction by reducing import taxes and other trade barriers.

This outcome is particularly beneficial for the United States since other countries tend to be more protectionist.

But not everyone agrees with this position.

President Trump is a notorious critic of the WTO, for instance, which isn’t surprising since he doesn’t understand trade.

There are also plenty of opponents on the left, which also isn’t surprising since they don’t like capitalism and competition.

What is somewhat surprising, however, is that some Republican lawmakers also have decided to oppose the WTO.

In a column last week for the New York Times, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri actually argued that it’s time to get rid of the World Trade Organization. Here’s his argument against the Geneva-based body.

The global economic system as we know it is a relic; it requires reform, top to bottom. We should begin with one of its leading institutions, the World Trade Organization. We should abolish it. …Its mandate was to promote free trade, but the organization instead allowed some nations to maintain trade barriers and protectionist workarounds, like China, while preventing others from defending themselves, like the United States. …Meanwhile, the W.T.O. required American workers to compete against Chinese forced labor but did next to nothing to stop Chinese theft of American intellectual property and products. …too many jobs left America’s borders for elsewhere. As factories closed, workers suffered, from small towns to the urban core. …Enough is enough. The W.T.O. should be abolished, and along with it, the new model global economy. The quest to turn the world into a liberal order of democracies was always misguided.

And here’s what he wants as a replacement.

The only sure way to confront the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century, Chinese imperialism, is to rebuild the U.S. economy and to build up the American worker. And that means reforming the global economic system. …The United States must seek new arrangements and new rules, in concert with other free nations, to restore America’s economic sovereignty and allow this country to practice again the capitalism that made it strong. …For nearly 50 years before the W.T.O.’s founding, the United States and its allies maintained a network of reciprocal trade that protected our national interests and the nation’s workers. We can do it again …It means striking trade deals that are truly mutual and truly beneficial for America and walking away when they are not. It means building a new network of trusted friends and partners to resist Chinese economic imperialism.

Since Hawley doesn’t seem to appreciate the benefits of trade, the simple approach would be to criticize him for wanting politicians and bureaucrats to have the power to interfere with voluntary exchange across borders.

Such criticism is warranted, of course, but I want to take this opportunity to make four points about how there may be hope for the future.

1. Hawley is actually endorsing the status quo. After World War II, the US took the lead in creating the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), a multilateral system of agreements which produced successive rounds of trade liberalization. The US then took the lead in creating the WTO so there would be a system (dispute resolution) to encourage nations to comply with their GATT commitments. But the dispute resolution process is now toothless because there are no longer enough judges for the system to operate (Trump has blocked the appointment of new judges). For all intents and purposes, the world is now operating under the pre-WTO rules – which seems to be what Hawley is calling for in his column.

2. The WTO no longer is a vehicle for global trade liberalization. The WTO is a consensus-based organization, which means unanimity is required for additional GATT-style reductions in global trade barriers. But since membership has expanded to include a number of countries with a protectionist mindset (most notably India, but China and Brazil also are a problem), it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll ever see another multilateral agreement for additional tariff reductions. This doesn’t change the fact that GATT was a big past success, and it doesn’t change the fact that it would be nice if the WTO’s dispute-resolution mechanism was back in operation. It simply means that we won’t be able to build on that progress.

3. Hawley is also endorsing, practically speaking, the best path forward. Another round of multilateral trade liberalization is off the table, but that doesn’t prevent nations from moving forward with bilateral free-trade agreements (FTAs are consistent with WTO rules). Interestingly, Hawley seems to support that approach. The U.S. already has nearly 20 of these pacts and is engaged in major negotiations with the United Kingdom for a new FTA that hopefully will be a template for future FTAs with other market-friendly nations.

4. Beware of the regulatory-harmonization wolf in FTA clothes. While bilateral trade pacts are desirable, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print. The European Union wants to hijack FTAs and make them vehicles for regulatory harmonization (meaning other nations have to agree to the EU’s onerous approach to red tape). If the goal is to have more trade, more competition, and more dynamism, the United States and other pro-market countries should make “mutual recognition” the foundation of future free-trade pacts.

The bottom line is that Hawley is wrong about the WTO, but he may actually be right about the best way of achieving future trade liberalization. Assuming, of course, that he actually means what he wrote about striking new deals.

In an ideal world, needless to say, these new bilateral FTAs (or even multi-nation FTAs) should be in addition to the WTO.

P.S. An under-appreciated aspect of the WTO is that it gives nations like the US a more-effective way of pressuring China to eliminate subsidies and other trade-distorting practices.

P.P.S. I’m normally very skeptical of international organizations. But the WTO encourages globalization rather than global governance, a key distinction.

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