International treaties bake in policies for generations. Fewer policies should be set by treaty.

When the TPP was still a matter of active debate, there was one downside to the process that didn’t seem to come up in the various policy debates. Some of the critiques were that it was “undemocratic”, but I think that’s basically wrong. If you need 12 democratic parties to agree on a single document, at some point you’re going to have to go through reconciliation. Each party doesn’t get to make changes (because then that amended draft has to get re-approved by all other 11 parties). So everyone signs off on some preliminary thing - that part goes through the normal democratic processes of democratically elected appointees negotiating. Then that goes through reconciliation. Then all 12 parties simply do up-or-down votes on the final document. Now you have a single document that 12 parties agree to.

Tyler Cowen has a more nuanced positive take: the TPP locks in policy, and its a way for places with good policy (the US) to drag places with mediocre policies towards our good policies. Given the relative economic heft, these agreements don’t really end up in the middle - they end up basically “exporting” US policy to the rest of the trade bloc, and this is progress in the grand neoliberal project.

As a card carrying neoliberal shill, I was still modestly pro-TPP, but I have one objection that nobody ever seemed to bring up. Transnational “rules of the road” agreements tend to lock in policy preferences for basically forever, and are better viewed as worldwide constitutional amendments in how rigid they are, than acts of congress. How sure are we that we’ve gotten the policy decisions right? Perhaps we should sacrifice some modest portion of global output in exchange for some flexibility.

As a concrete example, consider one obsolete policy that we are basically locked into forever: copyright law. The rules on intellectual property were baked into international agreements by the Berne convention, and we’re basically locked into the convention’s policies forever. While we can have tweaks (which so far have just been ratchets as the copyright terms get extended). Any genuinely interesting new policy idea is completely off the road. There’s one idea that I’ll write up at a later date: that intellectual property is the perfect place to experiment with Posner-Weyl Harberger taxation. But such policies are basically prohibited by the Berne convention, so it’s not just that we won’t experiment with it in the US. Even countries with radically different policy experiments are locked out of ever trying genuinely new policy in the realm of copyright law.

I read a wonderful tweet recently, attributed to the Soviet computer scientist Boris Babayan: “There is only one project – architecture, operating system and languages, compiler, it’s only one project. It’s all together.” It’s an extremely insightful point, which I think is generalizable beyond software engineering. There is only one globalization, one supply chain, one “infrastructure”, one Pax Romana. And we need to be careful about further policy centralization, and restrict those instances to the few policy choices where we really are certain. Nuclear non-proliferation, and critical supply chain rules make the cut. For what it’s worth, I think TPP was up there in establishing critical supply chain rules of the road, and the global GDP increase was probably worth it. But none of the surrounding commentary really seemed to ever talk about it in these terms.