Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Protectionist Myth

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Protectionist Myth

Article excerpt

With tens of thousands of protesters expected in Seattle in opposition to the World Trade Organization meeting there, protectionism appears to be on the rise. And the Seattle-bound activists aren't alone. Korean students march in Seoul, urging their compatriots to buy only national goods. French farmers trash a McDonald's to protest the globalization of their dining experience. And British and Indian activists destroy fields of bioengineered crops and press for bans on the importation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

It is little wonder that free-traders such as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan loudly lament a new wave of old-fashioned protectionism that imperils the hard-won gains of market liberalization and threatens ruinous trade wars.

These concerns miss the point. It's true that environmentalists wish to protect biodiversity, consumers fear genetically modified foods, and unions are concerned about child labor and poor working conditions. But efforts to use trade sanctions to enforce labor, environmental, and health standards only confirm that trade now touches more lives in more ways. The fact that environmentalists worry whether shrimp traps in developing countries inadvertently kill sea turtles isn't a sign of rising protectionism. Rather, it underscores the emergence of a global market for shrimp caught by developing countries. The "new" protectionism reflects the success of economic globalization, not the failure.

Indeed, free trade is hardly in retreat. Tariffs are declining and trade is expanding almost everywhere. Export restraints and nontariff barriers are disappearing. Even with the contraction of many Asian economies and the slowdown in world growth, the volume of global trade grew by 3.6 percent in 1998 and is expected to expand by 3.7 percent this year. Overall, merchandise trade accounted for 37 percent of global economic activity in 1998, up from 27 percent in 1980. On the whole, trade has never been freer.

Unfortunately, rising anxiety about the fate of free trade often confuses new forms of protectionism with the older variety, which sought to protect narrow economic interests of one industry at the expense of another. …

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