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Globalization — Locating the Control Knob

Are there two keys to saving the world?

July 28, 2001

Are there two keys to saving the world?

The old-fashioned approach to slowing the spread of material technology — by raising tariffs — has a history of inviting retaliation and thus yielding full-blown trade wars of the kind that usher in depressions. But there is a safer approach to slowing globalization down just a tad — a supranational approach.

The idea here isn’t to create a Bureau of Global Slowdown at the United Nations. Rather, the idea is simply to tolerate various supranational efforts that are starting to take shape — such as attempts to build labor and environmental standards into the international trade regime. As they solidify, they will naturally have a certain sedative effect on the spread of globalization.

Of course, as first-world and third-world workers unite to raise third-world wages (and thus keep first-world wages from free-falling), industrialists will complain that this dulls the market’s edge, slowing progress. Yes, it does — but that’s okay.

As environmentalists unite to save rain forests, or tax fossil fuels, the same complaint will be heard — and the same answer will apply. In the age of the superempowered angry man, and the quite disgruntled man, the slowing down of deeply unsettling change is a benefit, not just a cost.

Note that these two particular forms of slowdown — supranational labor and environmental policies — have the added virtue of directly addressing specific sources of anger and disgruntlement: the rapid exodus of blue-collar jobs from developed nations; and the ecological damage that can radicalize environmentalists and that, more broadly, deepens cultural dislocation in such already polluted places as Mexico City and Bangkok.

In a way, it’s a misnomer to call this a “slowing” of globalization. After all, the things that might do the slowing — supranational labor groups or environmental groups, supranational bodies of governance — are themselves part of globalization.

What is really happening is that the further evolution of political globalization is bound to slow down slightly the evolution of economic globalization.

This kind of approach has a proven track record. In the United States during the early 20th century, as economic activity migrated from the state level to the national level, the national government grew powerful enough to regulate it.

And some of the regulation — labor laws in particular — had the effect of subduing capitalism a bit, dulling its harder edges. As it turns out, this was, among other things, a preemptive strike against chaos (in the form of Marxist revolution) — and a successful one at that.

There is little cause to worry about economic globalization grinding to a halt under the weight of regulation. After all, the political prerequisites for real regulation, such as strong transnational labor coalitions, will form only slowly — and the economic impetus behind globalization is mammoth.

In fact, the only thing with much chance of stalling globalization for any length of time is the very chaotic backlash — coming from the angry and the disgruntled — that a slight slowdown of globalization might avert. Strange as it sounds, the best way to keep economic globalization from slowing down a lot may be to slow it down a little.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, by Robert Wright. Reprinted with permission of The Sagalyn Literary Agency. Copyright © 2000 by Robert Wright.