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Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 1999/24 Kislev, 5760

Tony Snow

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Woodstock for
America's malcontents -- The World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle has become the Woodstock for America's malcontents. A throng of complainers has descended upon the Coffee City, bearing varied grievances with a common theme: They hate the march of time.

One is struck less by the vigor of the protests than the utter futility. It is difficult to discern the causal connection between a college student's squatting on a street and the advancement of human dignity in China -- or the mechanism by which an assault on a Starbucks can lead to collective-bargaining rights in Burkina Faso.

But the kids and the aging hippies forge on in full voice and furor. Most, it seems, are interested less in good causes than ample air time. Yet exposure makes them ripe for mockery since the typical protest speech sounds like a Maoist version of “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”

Although Pat Buchanan described the melee as “the birth pangs of a new movement,” the only thing birth pangy about it was its infantilism. Washed-up radicals thundered about corporate greed but promoted the more avaricious institution of socialism. Left-wing protesters railed against forced abortions in China while advocating subsidized abortion (that is, abortion through legal bribes) worldwide. And union leaders declared that we should not cede our sovereignty even while demanding that the WTO impose wage and tariff standards on other countries.

Many of these people act as if the world would be a nobler place if they were in charge, but a survey of the rubble tells us better. Do we really want to submit to the leadership of people who spray “Barbie Kills” on toy-shop windows, trash “Planet Hollywood” as if it were a torture chamber or boast membership to such outfits as Dyke Action and Raging Grannies?

The problem with Seattle's frequent-flier Jacobins is that they're determined to seize total control of small portions of our lives. Environmentalists, for instance, want to make the planet safe for the post-human era. And European rednecks -- especially the French -- opposed to genetic engineering, irradiated food and other innovations, want us to give up healthy produce so they can create a Golden Age of Manure.

For the better part of three centuries, anti-trade protests have boasted two crucial features: nativism and naive romanticism. Protectionists liken the introduction of “outside” influences to the invasion of a virus. Trade, they say, rewards people who are not loyal to the motherland; it corrupts the “pure” national culture with the toxin of foreign habits.

(This is why so many protectionists also believe in sealing the borders.)

China has become the chief bogey for Seattle's nativists. One gets the sense they believe Beijing would overrun the WTO and within a short span require the world's population to use chopsticks and wear ugly green outfits.

This gets things exactly backward. Trade forces countries to pare habits and institutions that inhibit entrepreneurial creativity. Taiwan and South Korea have stumbled toward democracy after securing a measure of economic freedom. Japan has shed some of its insularity in response to global economic competition.

Countries cannot both hide and win. Those who retreat, lose big. And nations can't even get into the race unless they protect innovation and reward success.

These entrance requirements help demolish the other protectionist trend: looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Environmentalists in particular seem to believe that economic growth stimulates pollution and nudges the entire planet slowly toward ruin.

Although prosperity meant pollution a half-century ago, that's not true today. America becomes “cleaner” by the year because we consider a pristine environment not merely an amenity, but a necessity. People now make fortunes by removing nasty stuff from our water and air.

More importantly, economic expansion creates a level of wealth, comfort and health that we all consider desirable -- and that our forbears found unimaginable. To put it in perspective, Bill Gates' net worth exceeds the value of every good and service generated by the United States in 1900. The average life span in 1900 was 47.3 years, compared with 76.3 today. At the dawn of the century, 98 percent of all U.S. households cleaned laundry with the help of washboards. You get the idea.

Bill Clinton's job-approval ratings continually testify to the fact that whether protesters like it or not, we're in the midst of a second Guilded Age. The only downside is that good times invite goof-offs to repackage their laziness as hidden nobility. The fact is, these protesters are not serious and have nothing particularly worthy to say. A young woman named Stephanie Derouin unintentionally skewered the rabble rousers when she told The New York Times, “(I)f I didn't have a job, I'd probably be out there protesting with them.”

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©1999, Creators Syndicate