The Market Shall Make You Free

By Michlethwait, John; Wooldridge, Adrian | The Spectator, June 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Market Shall Make You Free


Michlethwait, John, Wooldridge, Adrian, The Spectator


IT is hard to think of a more threatening word in the political lexicon than `globalisation'. There are still a few proponents of the Third Way, including both Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, who use the phrase to prove how modem they are. But more often it is a codeword for some unseen dread. For Prince Charles and the less academically modified seedlings of the British aristocracy it is the gateway to an Orwellian future. For the French, it means a torrent of Coca-Cola, hamburgers and Rocky movies. For the Pope and Nelson Mandela - those two patron saints of our age it means the enslavement of the poor world by the rich. For an increasing number of workers, even in managerial jobs, it means the possibility that somebody who lives half the world away will dump you on the dole.

This unpopularity is beginning to take a toll on a process that, though sometimes cruel and uneven, has, by most objective measures, enriched the world mightily. Part of the problem is that producers are much better at making a fuss than consumers. The victims of lower trade barriers, such as the workers in Rotherham laid off this week by what used to be British Steel, tend to be concentrated and identifiable; the far greater gains (the cheaper steel that goes into all our cars and houses) are diffuse and hard to spot.

Politicians don't help by championing trade only when it comes in the form of good exports not bad imports. The media, too, is unsympathetic. Globalisation is always illustrated by pictures of the Spice Girls, never the Guggenheim in Bilbao; always a Big Mac, never Chilean Sea Bass with Moroccan couscous and fresh Javan papaya. Worthy television documentaries about the Third World focus on the occasional ills perpetrated by Western multinationals abroad, rather than the far greater damage done by the rich world's habit of erecting trade barriers against the Third World's goods. One UN study guesses that the poor world could increase its exports by $700 million a year by 2005 if those barriers were removed.

The real damage at last year's disastrous World Trade Conference in Seattle was inflicted not by the bare-breasted vegans and turtle-costumed greens, but by Bill Clinton, who suddenly decided to back America's protectionist unions (in the hope that they would back Al Gore). One hundred and fifty years ago, in a supposedly predemocratic age, Sir Robert Peel took the message of free trade and liberty to every corner of Britain, speaking in factories and fields. Now politicians have `outsourced' the job of defending globalisation to professional economists, who spend their time sparring with each other at various secluded international conferences.

More generally, the harsh truth is that many people feel that they just want a bit of a pause. The world has speeded up too fast - even for the winners. And there remain real concerns about the losers who are apparently being left behind. One does not need to have the outsized conscience of Clare Short to feel a little queasy about the Guardian headline that asked, `What is the difference between Tanzania and Goldman Sachs? One is an African country that makes $2.2 billion a year and shares it among 25 million people. The other is an investment bank that makes $2.6 billion and shares it between 161 people.' Recently, Stanley Fischer, the number two honcho at the now reviled IMF, suggested that the organisation simply give up using the term `globalisation'.

The globalists are ceding ground without a fight. The last global age, which began with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, ended in a spectacular bust with the first world war. This time, it seems much more likely to end with a whimper. Indeed, globalisation's weakness is not perhaps its outand-out opponents - be they the Asian prime ministers hurling abuse at AngloSaxon speculators or Osama bin Laden and his threats of jihad. (For every young Muslim flocking to a fundamentalist cleric there are usually several trying to download pictures of Pamela Anderson from the Internet. …

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