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A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization

by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge [correspondents for The Economist]

Crown Business, 2000

Concerned about inequality, environmental degradation, Coca-colanization of culture, or the WTO's failure to protect sea turtles? Blame globalization. Treating globalization as universal scapegoat has become so common, in fact, that defending it may seem folly. Public debate on the subject, as Micklethwait and Wooldridge note, "is carried out largely on the terms of its opponents" (xxv). Few businessmen care to justify their role in globalization, and when politicians call for globalization with a "human face," they already give credence to the critics' case. In many parts of Europe, the authors point out, "it is hard to think of any intellectual who might be described as "proglobalization"" (281). Undaunted, Micklethwait and Wooldridge enter the debate with a vigorous brief for the defense. Globalization, they argue, is worth celebrating: it makes economies more efficient, individuals more wealthy, societies more free. It is "hardhearted" (270), even "brutal and chaotic" (xxii), and it exacts "occasionally terrible" costs (247), but on balance it improves the lot of humankind.

"Yes, it does increase inequality, but it does not create a winner-take-all society, and the winners hugely outnumber the losers. Yes, it leaves some people behind, but it helps millions more to leap ahead. Yes, it can make bad government worse, but the onus should be on crafting better government, not blaming globalization. Yes, it curtails some of the power of nation-states, but they remain the fundamental unit of politics. Globalization is not destroying geography, but merely enhancing it" (335).

Its chief benefit is not economic: by bringing down barriers, it "helps to hand the power to choose to the individual" (xxvi). Globalization promises to make old liberal dreams come true.

While this liberal ("neoliberal" in current parlance) argument frames their book, Micklethwait and Wooldridge spend most of it recounting how by the end of the twentieth century the world became more economically integrated than ever before. Part of the plot is not new, they concede: Marx already envisioned it in the middle of the nineteenth century, Keynes recognized it early in the twentieth. Without aspiring to great originality, Mickletwhait and Wooldridge identify technology, capital markets, and management methods as the driving forces in bringing about a vastly more intricate worldwide capitalist system. Some sectors of the world economy, such as the sex trade, are being globalized rapidly, others, such as public education, much more slowly. Prime beneficiaries of globalization are the "cosmocrats," a global elite that enjoys both outsized economic gains and a distinct lifestyle. The process is less kind to "has-beens" (e.g., American auto workers), "storm damage" (most Russians), or "nonstarters" (favela dwellers in Brazil). Not surprisingly, the story has a strong Economist flavor; quite a bit of material, regular readers will notice, has been recycled from the magazine.

Throughout the book, Mickletwhait and Wooldridge puncture various myths. No, they show, large companies and universal products are not bound to reign in the new global economy. While the nation-state loses some its traditional prerogatives, it retains a key role in managing the world economy. (Calling its endurance "surprising," as the authors do, may now be cliché in itself.) That state role has been bolstered thus far by the failure of global government, including the paralyzing "haze of duplication" that has enveloped the UN. Contrary to French fears, planetized entertainment is not becoming more American and culture is not becoming one global goulash. Globalization does not represent the main threat to culture in any case, for in many places "cultural deserts have been produced by officials trying to preserve "their" cultures from corruption at the hands of aliens" (201). And far from being an inexorable, irreversible process, globalization is inherently fragile; left undefended, it may well collapse into costly conflicts or regional divisions. As dangerous as the threats of its adversaries, who cleverly exploit the very forces they ostensibly oppose, is the ineptness of cosmocrats in making the case for globalization.

The authors' fluid prose and flashes of wit make this one of the most readable books on globalization. Their lively tone fits the refreshingly optimistic case they make. This is also a serious book. It is economically literate, draws on relevant academic work, and weaves first-hand reporting into a provocative argument. It avoids the fake folksiness of The Lexus and the Olive Tree and dispenses with Friedmannian gimmicks like imaginary letters to world leaders. Unfortunately, it is not immune to one of the seven irritating habits of business writers and self-help gurus, namely to package cheap advice in the form of arbitrary lists. Here we get, with tongue only very lightly in cheek, the "six principles of global management" and the "ten habits of highly successful clusters." This may appeal to the average cosmocrat, but it does not do much for the authors' case. Another stylistic device that weakens the book is the strangely imploding criticism. Micklethwait and Wooldridge often convey the absurdity of a point, only to acknowledge its at least partial validity: the idea of a global ruling class has been "one of the great canards" of modern history (228), but, well, it is coming true after all; supporters of debt relief engage in "woolly thinking," but, well, the moral case for debt forgiveness is "unanswerable" (300); the nation-state isn't on the decline, but, well, "nobody denies" that it is losing power to other sorts of government and the real questions are "how much and to whom" (152). This crosses the line between evenhandedness and trying to have it both ways.

By bringing the tradition from John Locke to Friedrich von Hayek to bear on globalization, this book provides an important public service. It effectively makes a case that needs to be made. It enlivens global debate. Whether it will get a hearing from opponents remains to be seen. Many of them will scoff at any attempt to make global capitalism appear morally respectable. More liberally inclined readers will find Micklethwait and Wooldridge's case quite persuasive, of course, but may conclude that a global future perfect will require stronger intellectual support than they have given it. Their ambition is not to advance current knowledge, so in discussing the predicaments of culture and the nation-state they favor compact summary over probing argument. It may be true that open markets "go hand in hand" with open governments (59), but closer analysis of the actual connections between them would strengthen such sunny judgments. Like their ideological counterparts, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do not show how one can sensibly weigh costs and benefits of a vast and complex transformation. Though they reasonably apply standard economic arguments to the current world economy, they do not examine how traditional liberal arguments must be modified to shape a new kind of world society. What would it really mean to think of the globe as an "open society"? What difference do the scale of global relations and the diversity of world cultures make to the liberal project? A Future Perfect only begins to sketch answers to such questions.


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Copyright 2000 - Frank Lechner