The Only Credible Response to Globalization


By Joe Campbell
March 26th, 2009

Niall Ferguson in The Telegraph:

Underlying this tremendous growth in financial markets was a fourfold liberalisation of international markets for goods, services, capital and labour. This was not, of course, peculiar to the English-speaking world: globalisation, as its name suggests, is ubiquitous. But its implications for those on the Anglophone Right were distinctive. Unremarked by conservatives in Britain, America and even Australia, these great shifts created a new and much greater trilemma.

Suppose that a government can have any two of the following things, but not all three: globalisation, in the sense of openness to international flows of goods, services, capital and labour; social stability; and a small state. Or, to put it differently, conservatives can pick any two from an open economy, a stable society and political power – but not all three.

Ferguson is extremely articulate (and credible) in his explanation of why conservatives have no “articulate” answers to globalization. He believes that conservatism will be able to once again thrive once it chooses to sacrifice social stability, which he links to social mobility. Although the two concepts certainly are related, it’s hard for me to accept the re-branding of one as the other – and it seems a bit too pat on Ferguson’s part. On the other hand, Ferguson describes the other side of the argument:

Only the Left appears to have a credible response [so far]: globalisation, plus social stability, plus a strong, interventionist state.

The set-up Ferguson proposes then would be:

The Left

In favor of:

  • Globalization
  • Social stability
  • Strong, interventionist state

Accepting as necessary evils:

  • Government interference
  • Less social mobility

Conservatives

In favor of:

  • Globalization
  • Social mobility
  • Small (but “smart”) state

Accepting as necessary evils:

  • Inequality
  • Booms and busts of the financial cycle
  • Social disorder

Ferguson avoids all the tough questions – such as what “smart” means – and how this would relate to regulation – and just presumes that governmental actions, inequality and social mobility are directly related – and that somehow, more inequality leads to more social mobility. I think perhaps Ferguson is attempting to create a scenario when he can plausibly oppose the man he describes as “the most Left-wing Democrat ever elected to be President of the United States.” This seems to me to be a rather implausible description of the pragmatist that Obama is. But this points to what is distorting Ferguson’s extremely interesting and insightful view of political ideologies and the current world trends. 

Let me propose an alternate party – one that it seems Barack Obama is already leading:

Liberals

In favor of:

  • Globalization
  • A strong, interventionist state to aid in the creation of and to police the market
  • A state that balances the need for a social safety net and individual incentives
  • A balance between social stability and social mobility

Accepting as necessary evils:

  • Inequality (but not extreme inequality)
  • Government interference
  • A level of social disorder
  • The boom-and-bust financial cycle (but mitigated)

The idea is to maximize certain goods while balancing against the evils that are their side effects. Extreme inequality can decrease social mobility at least as much as government distortions. A social safety net of the right type can act both a great equalizer and as an incentive for individuals to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions. 

My problem with Ferguson’s critique is that he seems to view the debate between the Left and conservatives as an either/or proposition – which it often is – but given the situation he describes, it’s more an argument of degree rather than kind. The Left that Ferguson is arguing against may favor social equality over social mobility but both sides agree that both goals are worthy. It’s a question of what the right balance is.