The WTO has ruled in favor of Antigua and Barbados again and again at the WTO, declaring that if the United States allows some forms of online gambling within its borders, then it must allow its citizens to gamble online across borders. This makes Dani Rodrik uncomfortable, but I don’t understand why.
Rodrik argues that the WTO is infringing upon US domestic policy space by interpreting “recreational services” to include online gambling, when “U.S. did not originally intend to include online gambling when it opened its market to similar services.” If that wasn’t the intention, then the WTO ruling is a power grab by the international body:
So the question is precisely who gets allocated the residual rights [to policy-making] in this instance: the international trading regime, or the domestic polity?
This leaves the WTO in a bind. For taking these rules at face value results in decisions such as these that are deeply counterintuitive. As the Harvard law professor Charles Nesson puts it, “people [at the WTO] must be scared out of their wits at the prospects of enforcing a ruling that would instantly galvanize public opinion in the United States against the W.T.O.”
To me, this is another example of how existing WTO practices are leading to the narrowing of policy space to the detriment of legitimacy (and economic logic). When the system serves to enforce new restrictions on domestic policy autonomy that would be wildly unpopular at home, it is time to rethink the system.
I disagree with Professor Rodrik on three issues: (1) the factual claim that gambling wasn’t originally part of the Uruguay Round deal (2) the theoretical claim that the ruling is contrary to economic logic, and (3) the impact claim that Americans will be enraged by this infringement upon their “policy space.”
First, the factual claim. The US should have seen this coming. Other countries did, and specifically excluded gambling from the recreational services provision. Professor I. Nelson Rose of the Whittier Law School writes:
The United States had indeed (accidentally) agreed to let in all forms of gambling when, in 1994, it signed the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). It did this by agreeing to let in all “Recreational, Cultural & Sporting Services” . . . “except sporting.” Other countries put “gambling” on their lists of excluded services; the United States did not.
Perhaps it was an accidental inclusion, but then this is the fault of the USTR for being asleep at the wheel, not the WTO for enforcing its agreement. Other countries were apparently more competent.
Second, the economic logic. What is “deeply counterintuitive” about the decision that a country may not discriminate against economic activities along national borders? Perhaps the WTO could have ruled more narrowly, so that Antigua would merely have the right to sell “lottery tickets, participation in Web-based pro sports fantasy leagues and off-track wagering on horse racing,” rather than all forms of online gambling, but that’s arguing about the proper scope of the discrimination in question, not the principle itself. I think it’s logical to believe that, as Sallie James puts it, “if the United States finds online gambling offensive, it must be consistent in its restrictions and apply them equally to domestic and foreign providers.”
Third, the American anger at the decision. Rodrik’s post makes it appear that Americans are so fond of sovereign “policy space” that they will be quite upset by the WTO’s infringement upon it, but Professor Nesson was explaining that the WTO must be reluctant to enforce its decision because Antigua, aware that, absent transferrable retaliatory rights, a few tariffs upon US exports would provide it negligible leverage, requested an awesome penalty:
Mr. Mendel, who is claiming $3.4 billion in damages on behalf of Antigua, has asked the trade organization to grant a rare form of compensation if the American government refuses to accept the ruling: permission for Antiguans to violate intellectual property laws by allowing them to distribute copies of American music, movie and software products, among others.
Dean Baker rightfully highlighted this clever tactic, but Rodrik omitted it. Whether it is pragmatically wise for Antigua and the WTO to entangle themselves in such a high-stakes showdown is a completely valid question, but I don’t think the ruling lacks economic or legal merits. So why is Dani Rodrik so skeptical of the decision?