Saturday, 23 January 2010

Globalisation and equality

Via Tom Palmer and Marginal Revolution, we learn that global poverty is falling, is doing so fast, and much more so than previously expected. Equality is increasing as a consequence. This is very cheering news, and it means far more for so many people in the world than all the news stories about bad laws, bigger government, and even attacks on civil liberties. The story probably has countless more implications for human prosperity than climate change.

Yet while this can be a moment of celebration for libertarians, who can appreciate that slowly but surely more people are having the opportunity to pursue their own happiness, it receives a rather muted response on both the left and right. Of course, this is partly because good news doesn't sell like disasters, but there are deeper reasons why this doesn't get the billing it should. The left still rely on a narrative, whether implicit or explicit, that all the wealth that the West currently enjoys is the result of exploitation elsewhere in the world, via the system of global capitalism. Libertarians, by contrast, can appreciate that, despite the frequent predations within currently existing capitalism, the results of genuinely free trade are there to see and represent a positive addition to wealth that benefits everyone.

The right, in their turn, frequently deploy a frightening narrative in which impoverished masses are about to swamp the West. But what if those masses turn out not to be so poor, and to be more eager to sell us insurance or a laptop than destroy our way of life? Why then there would be no need to introduce bans on burkas after all, or clamp down on immigration. Both the left and the right need the world to seem like a much scarier place than it necessarily is. This is not to say that we shouldn't be critical of currently existing global capitalism, or that we shouldn't be alive to the risks out there in the world. But amongst the gloom of the recession, we should appreciate that things, overall, are looking much much better for hundreds of millions of people.

Tom Palmer's classic talk on poverty from 2008 is well worth reviewing on this topic.

UPDATE: Having claimed above that neither the left nor the right are all that interested in the good news about globalisation, I am now forced to retract such a claim at least in the case of the liberal-left blog Liberal Conspiracy, who have kindly put up a version of this post.