Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reflections on the G-20 Conference

I decided to go to Pittsburgh this week with a group of free marketers to protest against the protectionist measures that the Obama Administration has recently enacted. My ulterior motive was to check out the city of Pittsburgh, which has probably been the most successful rustbelt city since the decline of manufacturing in America.

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in town on Tuesday was that most of the downtown was going to be shut down for the conference as a security precaution. At first blush, this seems rather extreme. After all, in post 9-11 America, there is legitimate concern over many of the security measures that have been enacted. However, while no one likes to see legions of riot police in their cities, conferences like this attract thousands of protesters, some of which engage in violence and vandalism. This leaves the authorities caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they can sit by passively and allow the protesters to take over the city. Given the demeanor of some of the protesters, such as one anarchist who attempted to spit at me because of my sign (though she missed), this seems untenable. On the other hand, the police can do as they did, and lock down the city. This is also unfortunate, especially when they are forced to gas protesters. When the police are forced to resort to crowd control tactics in an urban setting, there are bound to be innocent bystanders affected.

The problem isn't necessarily that the police are given too much power in these situations, but rather that they shouldn't allow these situations to develop in the first place. There is no good reason why conferences like the G-20 should be held in major cities. Global trade meetings invariably bring out militant protesters. The only way to mitigate the effects of the necessary security precautions is to hold these meetings in remote location, as is typically done for G-8 meetings. Not only would that reduce the possibility of violent confrontations, but it would also prevent local businesses from being forced to shut down, or even potentially fall prey to vandalism. This was the case with the Rite Aid down the street from my hotel. I visited it on Wednesday night, and it was subsequently smashed in by protesters on Thursday.

The unfortunate reality is politicians are not much concerned with the tangible and intangible costs of hosting such meetings. After all, the federal government is on the hook for security costs at the G-20. Meanwhile, local politicians get to feel good about showing the world just how lovely their city is. Luckily for the residents of Pittsburgh, the inconveniences they suffered pale in comparison to the anarchy that prevailed in Seattle during the WTO conference in 1999. While governments can't prevent unruly protesters, the least they could do is to refrain from luring them to major cities.