Free Minds & Free Markets

Poor Man's Hero

Controversial writer Johan Norberg champions globalization as the best hope for the developing world.

If there is any moral certainty underpinning today's anti-globalization movement, it's that desperate actions -- from sometimes violent street demonstrations to public crop burnings to dressing up as giant sea turtles -- are needed to protect the traditions, forests, and human rights of the Third World against the rapacious greed of the First. The anti-globo left has little doubt that anyone who favors international free trade, open markets, and the cultural mongrelization they foster must be a greedy corporate bastard hellbent on plundering the world's poor and chopping down the last tree left on the planet. On the right, if George W. Bush is any indication, a different sort of blindness is at work: It's OK to pass nakedly protectionist legislation as long as you talk a good game about favoring free trade.

This is why Johan Norberg, a 30-year-old Swede with roots in the anarchist left, is so important. He is the author of In Defense of Global Capitalism, which makes a powerful moral and economic case for globalization. Norberg throws rhetorical Molotov cocktails both at left-wing critics who would condemn developing countries to poverty by insisting on First World workplace and environmental standards as a prerequisite for trade and at Western governments whose free market rhetoric is shamefully undercut by draconian tariffs on textiles and agriculture, the two areas in which the developing world can actually compete.

Norberg focuses on the human dimension of globalization, how increased and freer trade is the best way to help the wretched of the earth. A bestseller in Sweden when it appeared there in 2001, In Defense of Global Capitalism is a richly detailed and nuanced brief in favor of globalization. It was translated for British audiences by the influential London free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. The Cato Institute has just released a new and updated American translation by Roger Tanner (with help from reason Associate Editor Julian Sanchez, who previously worked at Cato).

A fellow at the Stockholm think tank Timbro, Norberg is the author of several previous books, including State, Individual, and Market (2000), A History of Swedish Liberalism (1998), and The Resistance Man (1997), a study of the Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg.

In Defense of Global Capitalism is a compelling book on what is arguably the major economic issue of our time. In Johan Norberg, globalization has found a persuasive and passionate spokesman who may well reshape the terms of debate. If he succeeds in doing so, it won't be his first such success. In the early 1990s, as part of a libertarian group called the Freedom Front, Norberg helped to organize speakeasies that illegally sold liquor to protest Sweden's restrictive licensing laws. After the group grew to 30,000 members -- and after more than a dozen raids by the police -- Swedish politicians realized they couldn't contain what was becoming a broad-based social movement. Instead, they liberalized their laws, allowing drinking establishments to maintain longer hours. "That's my biggest political success to date," jokes Norberg.

Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie interviewed Norberg in Washington, D.C., in early September.

Reason: Your book is titled In Defense of Global Capitalism. Can you summarize your case?

Johan Norberg: The core is that capitalism and globalization -- by which I basically mean free and open markets and the liberal political, economic, and social institutions that support them -- bring freedom of choice to people in countries that have never experienced this before. If we want to defend globalization -- and we should -- our focus must be on developing countries, not our own Western countries. Global capitalism means that people are no longer confined by the decisions of national elites. These could be the local monopolies, the local powers, politicians, and so on.

By making local powers compete or by bypassing them altogether, globalization gives people more freedom to decide over their own consumption, to buy things from abroad, to get the cultural influences they want, to travel, to meet friends, and to cross borders.

Reason: What's the evidence that global capitalism benefits people in poor countries?

Norberg: Take just about any statistic, any indicator of living standards in the world, and you can see the progress that has been made over the exact period that worries globalization critics. In the last 30 years we've seen chronic hunger and the extent of child labor being halved. In the last 40 years, we've seen life expectancy going up to 64 years in developing countries. We've seen literacy levels approaching the maximum in most countries in the world. According to World Bank statistics, 200 million people have left absolute poverty -- defined as living on the equivalent of less than $1 a day -- over the past 20 years. What's more, the most progress is found in the countries that increased trade and contacts with the outside world.

Globalization has also helped extend rights to women that had long been confined to men. These include being able to go into business, get an education, inherit money, and so on. One reason for this is simple economics. In a globalized, competitive economy, women are a potential resource. They are able to have new ideas, to produce, and to work. If you discriminate against women -- or anyone else -- you lose opportunities as a society or as an employer. Take the discussion that's going on now in Saudi Arabia about whether women should be allowed to drive, which they can't legally do now. While it's unlikely the situation there will change anytime soon, it's progress just to have the discussion. People are saying it's extremely costly to hire drivers, often from other countries, to drive women around. You can see how basic economics, basic capitalism, creates the incentive to give women more rights.

A second reason is that all the goods, ideas, and people that cross borders under globalization allow people to see more alternatives, to see other ways of living. When women and other oppressed groups in poor countries see how their counterparts in Western societies are treated, they begin to have ideas about how they want to be treated. Globalization is a great influence because people everywhere get all sorts of new ideas. They say, "Wow, things can be very different than I'm used to."

This isn't to say everything is rosy. Most things are getting better in the developing world, but there are new problems, including AIDS. Yet we can see the old scourges, the old diseases, being abolished. Life expectancy wouldn't be getting longer if things were getting worse in terms of health, hunger, and the environment. We have the few exceptions in sub-Saharan Africa, which also happens to consist of the very countries that are the least globalized. They have the least foreign investment and, generally speaking, the least political and economic liberty. More than anything, they need the sort of economic growth that will allow them to buy not simply relatively expensive AIDS drugs but penicillin and vaccines for more basic sorts of illnesses.

Reason: Can you give a specific example of a developing nation that has benefited from globalization?

Norberg: Look at Vietnam, which I visited recently. It had the benefit that when the Communists took power there, they actually implemented their ideas. They collectivized agriculture and they destroyed private property, which meant that in the mid-1980s people were starving there. The Communists' own ideas managed to do what the American bombs never did: destroy communism. In the wake of such failure, the government began to look for other examples, and they saw that Taiwan had succeeded by globalizing. The Communists in China were liberalizing trade and ownership laws and were seeing fast progress. The contrast is especially clear on the Korean peninsula. It's the same population, with the same culture, just having two very different political and economic systems. In 50 years, one of them went from hunger and poverty to Southern European living standards. The other one is still starving.

Looking at all this, the Vietnamese chose to go global. They began to price land and they began to open up for investments and for trade, which led to quick results. Agricultural production took off and has made them one of the world's biggest exporters of rice. But they also took in investments for manufacturing production. They've received tons of foreign investments and factories that gave people new opportunities and new resources that have increased their standard of living.

Reason: Critics would say that what Vietnam really imported were sweatshops.

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