Why We Should Fight Anti-Globalists

R. A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Thu Oct 23 04:29:58 PDT 2003


The Wall Street Journal

October 22, 2003


Why We Should Fight Anti-Globalists

Back in 1936, Liberal economist F.A. Hayek received a new book from a
colleague, and contemplated writing a detailed criticism of it, but in the
end decided against it. The theories in it were too flawed and incoherent,
he thought, so no one would take them seriously. Surely the author himself
would soon change his mind. Why waste time that could be used to develop
his own thoughts?

The colleague was John Maynard Keynes, and the book was the General Theory
of Employment, Interest and Money . When Keynesianism conquered the world's
economic ministries one by one, Hayek regretted his decision for the rest
of his life.

We risk repeating Hayek's error when we choose not to take anti-globalists
seriously. Many serious thinkers adopt this approach, however. Typical are
the comments of a trade economist who told me that it was a great waste of
time to confront anti-capitalists. They are guided by ideology and not
facts, and do not understand economic principles, so reasonable arguments
won't change their minds anyway.

This argument is fine as far as it goes, but it misses the point that
anti-globalists must be met head on not to convince them, but to make sure
they don't convince others. If they are not challenged in a public debate,
their confused views will guide all public policy soon.

People and politicians in general get their knowledge from the media, not
from university economics departments. And if the media is filled with the
likes of Naomi Klein, John Pilger and Ralph Nader every day, the public
will come to share their perspective. Anti-capitalist NGOs
(non-governmental organizations) have already given politicians an excuse
to ban genetically modified organisms. They have given intellectual
property rights a bad name and they regularly humiliate corporations, which
all too often react to public criticism by quickly apologizing for doing
what all companies should do, try to make money.

Anti-capitalist NGOs contributed in their way to the collapse of the World
Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Cancun. They had helped to radicalize
developing countries so that in the end officials from these countries
refused to offer lower tariffs on manufactured goods in exchange for
agricultural liberalization. Slowly but steadily these groups gain a bigger
influence in -- and more resources from -- institutions like the United
Nations and the World Bank. In these institutions' headquarters you can
nowadays count more NGO activists than employees.

But the long-term influence of the movement goes beyond even these
immediate events. Anti-capitalists are changing the intellectual climate
among the young and the students in the West. Being anti-market is today
the "in" position; it is fashionable whereas globalization is associated
with bureaucracies like those of the European Union (EU) and the
International Monetary Fund (IMF). According to surveys, globalization
(that is, free interaction in data, products, etc., between the people of
the world) is now associated with negative connotations among the young in
Europe and America more than in other parts of the world.

Some market advocates reassure themselves that at bottom this is all about
trade policies, and that the anti-globalists are no different from other
traditional protectionist forces, and therefore won't have a more dramatic
effect. But that is a misconception. The globalization debate is not
primarily about tariffs and quotas, it is about corporations, taxes,
capital movements, regulations, environmental policies, privatization, etc.
If we ignore the discussion of today, we lose the battle of tomorrow.

Right now a young generation in its formative years spends its time at
seminars or with books that teach distrust of private enterprise and a
belief in the state's ability to save the world. And they happen to be the
best educated students, in the best universities, from the better-off
families. They are right now commencing their long march through the
institutions. In a few years we will meet them as professors, as
politicians, as journalists and editors. This is the same process we saw
after the student revolts in the late 1960s.

But this is not inevitable. The excitement that we saw over globalization
in the 1990s was due in part to the fact that, for the first time in years,
a broad public had become interested in the global economy and its effects.
That should have been a golden opportunity to explain the complex process
that is the market economy. When there was a growing attention to poverty
issues, people were willing to listen to the explanation that global
poverty and hunger have been reduced faster in the era of globalization
than ever before in world history, and that it happened fastest in
countries that opened themselves to trade with the outside world.

We can rekindle this excitement if we meet anti-globalists in public
forums. But apart from such trade economists as Columbia University's
Jagdish Bhagwati, who does an important job as a traveling salesman for
traveling salesmen, the free traders have been mostly notable for their
absence. The intellectual plane has been slowly ceded to the

My personal experience from meetings and debates with anti-globalists is
that -- if you can stand being booed and hissed at -- it's worth meeting
them head on in public debates. If you keep pointing to the facts, most
people in the audience will be willing to listen. You can't be disappointed
that your opponent does not change his mind, you're not there for him but
for those spectators who are intellectually open and have a sincere
interest in the issues. If you are not there, they will only have the
anti-capitalists to listen to. Often times they have not rejected the
pro-capitalist arguments -- they just have never heard it. Hayek is not
precisely required reading in their curricula.

And one should not even give up on the anti-globalists themselves. My
experience debating and challenging anti-capitalists has taught me that,
once intellectually pushed, many of them do try to think up more
constructive solutions to the problems they raise. Many leave much of the
anti-capitalist rhetoric behind. Some can even be converted to the wisdom
of the free-market position.

One of the leading European anti-capitalists, George Monbiot, recently
admitted that the protectionism and emphasis on local production he
defended in the past would make poor nations even poorer. In time for the
WTO-meeting, the British left-wing paper the Guardian started a web site
arguing against agricultural subsidies. And the biggest campaign against
rich country protectionism and the EU's common agricultural policy has not
been organized by free trade economists, but by the development and relief
organization Oxfam. Many traditional anti-globalists have been influenced
by that.

The direction in which this movement will go in the future will depend on
the extent to which its activists are confronted and forced to be
constructive. And that's important if we are interested in what kind of
perspective the young generation is going to be influenced by. As Keynes
put it at the end of the General Theory: "soon or late, it is ideas, not
vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."

Mr. Norberg, author most recently of "In Defense of Global Capitalism"
(Cato), debates anti-globalists throughout the globe.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

More information about the FoRK mailing list