Suddenly international trade has become a very controversial issue. When the representatives of about a hundred states met in Uruguay to form the World Trade Organisation the response of the public in general was a big yawn.
Most people did not think that complicated agreements on things like import taxes could have very much effect on their lives, and they were just not interested. How different it was at the last meeting of the WTO in Seattle!
This time the delegates were met by a rainbow coalition of protesters, from members of trade unions to anarchists and environmentalists. Many of the protests were passive and peaceful, or consisted of demonstrators blocking roads and making it difficult for delegates to get to meetings. However, other demonstrations were violent, and by the end of the first day, shop windows had been broken, cars wrecked and police had fired tear gas at the demonstrators.
What was all the fuss about? The demonstrators themselves would not have been able to agree. The environmentalists were afraid that looser trade laws would allow big business to work from countries which allowed them to pollute the environment. Trade unions were afraid that cheaper labour in the third world would take their jobs, and the anarchists were, well, just being anarchists.
So with all these objections why did anyone want to increase global trade anyway? Well, it is a fact that the opening of the markets of the world, and world prosperity have increased together, and countries that have closed their economies from outside trade, like India, have done much worse than open countries like Thailand and Singapore.
So who is right? Perhaps both sides have a point. In any case at some time the two groups will have to talk, so that agreement can be reached so that world trade can become freer while still meeting the concerns of those opposed to it. But the sudden interest of ordinary people in world trade has been caused by one thing - people realise that what is decided at these inter-government meetings can change their lives; and not necessarily for the better.