TCS Daily


By Johan Norberg - March 22, 2002 12:00 AM

The most depressing aspect of the current debate about globalisation -- and its manifestation via anti-globalisation protests such as those at the Barcelona summit -- is the assumption that the world is rapidly going to the dogs. This is not a new phenomenon. In 1014 Archbishop Wulfstan of Sweden put it this way: "the world is in a rush and is getting close to its end."

In particular, the world is said to have become increasingly unfair. The chorus of the debate on the market economy runs: "The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer." If anything, this is regarded as a dictate of natural law, not a thesis to be argued. Yes, the first half is true: the rich have indeed got richer. Not all of them everywhere, but generally speaking. But the second half is, quite simply, wrong. The poor have not, generally speaking, come to be worse off in recent decades. On the contrary, extreme poverty has diminished, and where it was quantitatively greatest - in Asia - many hundreds of millions of people have begun to achieve a secure existence and even a modest degree of affluence.

Between 1965 and 1998, the average world citizen's income almost doubled, from $2497 to $4839. For the poorest one-fifth of the world's population, the increase has been faster still, with average income more than doubling during the same period from $551 to $1137 dollars. In China, the World Bank has spoken of "the biggest and fastest poverty reduction in history."

When the Swedish author Lasse Berg and the film-maker Stig Karlsson returned to Asian countries they had travelled to in the 1960s, they could not believe how wrong they were to have thought socialist revolution was the only way out of the misery they then saw. By the 1990s, when they returned to India and China, more and more people were extricating themselves from poverty, hunger and unsanitary conditions.

The biggest change of all is in people's thoughts and dreams. Television and newspapers bring ideas and impressions from the other side of the globe, widening people's notions of what is possible. Why should one have to spend all one's life in one place? Why must a woman be forced to have children early and sacrifice a career? Why make do with this policy when there are alternatives in other countries that work better?

This development has resulted, not from socialist revolution but, on the contrary, from a move in the past few decades towards greater individual liberty. The freedom to choose and the international exchange have grown, investments and development assistance have transmitted ideas and resources. Benefit has been derived from the knowledge, wealth and inventions of other countries. Imports of medicines and new health care systems have improved living conditions. Modern technology and new methods of production have moved production forward and improved the food supply. Individuals have become more free to choose their own occupations and to sell their products. Discrimination has been reduced since global capitalism doesn't care whether the best producer is a man or a woman. On the contrary, discrimination is expensive, implying as it does the rejection of certain people's goods and labour. We can tell from the statistics how these developments have enhanced national prosperity and reduced poverty. But the most important thing of all is liberty itself, the independence and dignity which autonomy confers on people who have been living under oppression.

Lasse Berg sums up the phenomenon thus: "It is not only inside the Chinese that a Chinese wall is now being torn down. Something similar is happening all over the world, in Bihar, in East Timor, Ovamboland. Human beings are discovering that the individual is entitled to be his own. This has by no means been self-evident before. The discovery engenders a longing, not only for freedom but also for the good things in life, for prosperity."

It is this mentality that must inspire optimism. We have not travelled the full distance; coercion and poverty still cover large areas of our globe. Great setbacks can and will occur. But people who know that living in a state of ignorance and oppression is not a natural necessity will no longer accept this as the only conceivable state of affairs. People who have acquired a taste for freedom will not consent to be shut in with walls and fences. They will work to create a better existence for themselves and to improve the world we live in. They will demand freedom and democracy. The aim of our political and economic systems should be to give them that freedom.

Johan Norberg holds an MA in the history of ideas and is a leading protagonist in the Swedish debate on free trade and globalisation. This article is extracted from a recent seminar given to the Civitas think-tank in London. His book In Defence of Global Capitalism, is published by Timbro.

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