Uncommon Common Sense – September 2016

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Global Values?  Not So Fast…


Bill Frayer 2010What is happening in Western Democracies? What, exactly is going on? The UK voted for Brexit. A major political party in the US has nominated Donald Trump for president. David Duke and white supremacists are back in the news.  Right-wing nationalist parties in Europe, marginalized for many years, are clearly making a comeback.  And this is catching us all by surprise? What’s happening? 

Jonathan Haidt, who I have referenced before in this column, has inked a new article in The American Interest which tried to make sense of all this.  He cites the work of the intellectual historian Michael Lind who has suggested that the world seems to be dividing  itself into two opposing camps:  the globalists and the nationalists. 

Globalism has been in fashion for some time and is based on the economic premise that the world is one big market, and that we will all be better off if we embrace this reality and liberalize our economic system to accommodate world trade (consider NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership). The European Union has staked its existence on this concept with a common currency and open borders. 

A common tenet of globalism is that immigration is inherently beneficial because it brings new talent and new energy into the marketplace which increases innovation and promotes economic growth.  The concept of multiculturalism, as a desirable goal, fits nicely into this global ideal. Some on the secular left agree with this concept and embrace it. 

But there are problems. The economic benefits of globalism, although perhaps real, are realized in the aggregate.  In other words, the larger economy may benefit from globalism, in the long run.  In the short run, however, many workers are displaced and face desperate circumstances.  Immigration, which can also be a boon economically, causes fear, anger and resentment in the short term. Because the world is facing a large Muslim immigration at the moment, many people, especially in European countries, are feeling overwhelmed. Because of their religious beliefs, Muslim immigrants are less likely to easily assimilate into their host countries. Highly educated immigrants are a clear benefit, but uneducated, poor immigrants put a strain on social service systems and local taxpayers. 

The other group Lind identifies are nationalists. These people, often working class, are not inherently racist nor intolerant. They think in terms of what’s best for  “their people,” usually their country. Because plants are closing, jobs are being lost, and the pace of immigration seems overwhelming, they are reacting by wanting their leaders to impose order and control over what seems to them as a downward trend. It is in these circumstances that they tend to embrace authoritarian leaders, hence the popularity of Donald Trump. 

The elite political establishment, committed to global development, does not do a good job convincing these nationalists that they have their interests in mind. The European Union is a classic example, setting policy in Brussels, without much input from the business owners and taxpayers in the UK and other countries. In this context, Brexit was not surprising. 

This may indeed be a transformative year. The voters in Western Democracies are speaking loud and clear.  I am not advocating pulling back completely from globalism. I continue to believe that global markets are good, and immigration is positive, at least in the long run.  But leaders in the West clearly need to listen to the concerns of many honest, hardworking people who feel their interests are being ignored. Perhaps immigration needs to be more closely regulated.  Perhaps vast trade deals are moving too fast.  Perhaps we need to slow down and consider the effects on everyone. Perhaps elite world leaders have to exercise more humility and do a better job seeking the input of the governed before they blindly dictate policy. Perhaps they need to take some responsibility for the rise of demagogues like Donald Trump.

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