Doha collapses – did you notice?

You probably missed it, but this very story was in the news this week. The Washington Post had a report about it, and judged it unworthy of the front page. It ran on page one of the business section, where it was given less prominence than a profile of a well-known expert on conserving energy. (He owns an interesting fuel-efficient house in Colorado.)

How could this happen? How could it come about that anybody who blinked would have missed the news that the Doha Round of trade talks had collapsed — and that even the people who noticed it mostly just shrugged and moved on? One reason is that the talks have indeed dragged on and on, and tracking the deviations of this epic of bureaucratic procedure would test the zeal of the most monomaniacal trade-policy wonk. But another reason, you might think, is that I am grossly exaggerating the whole thing, that the tale is not a clear-cut case of outrageous government incompetence, verging on criminality, as I am suggesting. But this would be incorrect. I am not hyping the evil and the idiocy of what has just happened. If anything, I am playing it down.

Liberal trade works exactly like a resource-saving technology. So, it makes exactly as much sense for a country to deny itself the advantages of open borders to trade as it would to deny itself the use of personal computers — another disruptive technology that shares its gains unequally within and among nations. Where my analogy goes wrong is that each government has its own liberal-trade machine, which it can switch on independently if it chooses. No international agreement is needed for a country to unilaterally lower its tariffs or cut its farm subsidies. If it does this, most of the gains (lower prices, lower taxes) flow to its own citizens — but there are benefits for foreigners, too. For the past five years, each government has been refusing to switch on its own machine unless other governments switch on theirs first. Why should the United States help Europe and Asia, if Europe and Asia won’t help the United States? And vice versa. In the end, this week, the governments agreed that the easiest thing was to forget the whole idea. When you put it like that, it just sounds crazy. It is crazy. Nonetheless, this is precisely what happened.

A Clear-Cut Case Of Incompetence,” by Clive Crook, National Journal, July 28, 2006

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