WTO Goes To Qatar

Want to know how Ann Veneman, the recently appointed United States Secretary of Agriculture, will wrestle with the great dilemmas of agricultural policy?  How might the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, be reformed by the European Union?  How will Japan’s government get price levels down on foodstuffs?  You can look for answers to these questions by going to Qatar.

Word is now out that Qatar, the tiny emirate on the Arabian Peninsula, has been chosen the site of the next meeting of the WTO, the World Trade Organization.  After the disaster at the last WTO meeting in Seattle, where some 30,000 protesters caused over $3 million dollars in property damage, one can’t help but think that the powers that be thought a rather remote country might be a more hospitable place for progress toward launching a new round of global trade talks.

The “powers that be” were probably correct.

It is often thought that the obstacles to freer trade are primarily political in the sense of opposing interests fighting against liberalization.  Generally speaking, that is true.  On textiles, for example, there is no question that the hesitation with which the United States has proceeded is a function of the tremendous power of a labor union/business alliance of textile interests in the U.S.  Indeed, beyond this alliance, it is hard to find an American who could care less about the issue.

The textile issue is one in which free trade would manifestly benefit both parties to the negotiation – the United States, as its citizens could acquire less expensive clothing, and the nations of the developing world, as they could build up their economies.  The fact that free trade in textiles is nowhere near a reality is a testimony to the power of concentrated interests – in this case, the textile industry – to triumph politically when the benefits of a particular policy would be diffused among hundreds of millions of people.  Put another way, the issue is one of life and death for the domestic textile industry, so its participants fight to the death.  To the broad mass of consumers who would benefit by a savings of a few bucks on clothes, it is not even on the radar screen as an issue worth fighting over.

The situation in agriculture involves all the same barriers caused by interests colliding.  Indeed in many countries, including the U.S., rural interests are explicitly given political weight beyond their numbers.

But beyond all the usual political barriers, there is a real substantive conflict that governments simply don’t know how to deal with: You have a notion in most countries that farming, and farmers, are an important part of the society.

The notion of the yeoman farmer raising his crops while simultaneously acquiring the habits of mind necessary to live as a free man and to participate in institutions of self-government is planted deep in the American psyche.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the most prominent of America’s founders, expressed this feeling succinctly in his “Notes on the State of Virginia”:

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.

If one believes that statement – and on some level most people in every country do – how can one vote to adopt free trade in agriculture, including eliminating all subsidies and price supports and be indifferent to the effects of such policies on farmers?  Even if it is known that prosperity will follow by reducing and eliminating subsidies and price supports, there is something in the collective “gut” that resists taking the step.

It is in a certain sense irrational.  Jefferson fought for a decentralized nation of yeoman farmers, praying to avoid the pestilence of ancient European capitals.  But Jefferson’s contemporary, Alexander Hamilton, another member of the founding generation and American’s first Secretary of the Treasury, fought for a strong centralized government, a government up to the task of subduing a continent and turning it into a country.

As a country, Jefferson was like the grand dreamer a maiden might dream to marry, but Hamilton was the man of practicality that the maiden actually did marry.  Jefferson won our hearts, but Hamilton wrote our future.

So there aren’t really all that many yeoman farmers around to preserve anymore.  And the economic forces that are urging consolidation are, in fact, unbeatable.  So we have the most dangerous of policies in agriculture, ones driven neither by analysis nor even by the arguing of factions, but ones dictated by sentiment.

Qatar is far away from America.  It is far away from Japan and from Europe.  When the meeting is held there, perhaps the distance can compel a different perspective, one more distant from ancient affections and one more attuned to the present needs.

It is an outcome devoutly to be wished.