Forward To The Past
How our folly will cause us to smash everything we rely on, in the name of self-sufficiency
There are few sights more indicative of the power of human intelligence than the heartwarming sight of anti-globalization protestors gathering outside a summit meeting. Clutching their iPhones (which depend entirely on a complex global network comprising forty-nine different countries around the world) and sipping their designer lattes (which depend entirely on a global network of at least ten different countries, depending on whose brand they happen to be sipping) and wearing clothes that likewise are entirely the product of globalization, these joyous protestors earnestly declaim the evils of the system that has given them absolutely everything they have.
Invariably these people are also great enthusiasts for green energy, yet the components of green electricity also rely on very complex global supply chains. There’s not much cobalt or lithium in Clacton or San Francisco, for example, nor copper or any of the rare Earth elements that green power devices need. Tesla, for example, would cease production instantly were it cut off from the global supply chain, as would wind power manufacturers and solar power manufacturers.
Even folk who viscerally detest the politically-correct darlings who reflexively support supposedly “progressive” causes find common ground in sharing anti-globalization sentiments. “Bring jobs back home!” was a powerful slogan for charlatans like Trump and Brexiteers alike. In this particular fantasy world, countries that isolate themselves from the world can magically thrive and create trillions of new jobs at home. In real life, of course, populist-nationalist isolationism means jobs lost, not jobs created, because isolated economies shrink and shrunken economies can’t employ as many people. But who cares about reality when it’s off in the future, difficult to understand, and the soundbites are so very lovely today?
So on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum there’s a strong desire for retreat. Everyone wants to run away and hide under the bed of nostalgia, conjuring up an imaginary past in which everything was better because everything was made at home.
But for all the naïve chanting and placard-waving and virtue signaling and racism and me-firstism and backward-looking fantasy, the reality is that without globalization we’d still be living in the 1970s. Automobiles would be expensive, dangerous, inefficient, and unreliable. Supermarkets would have only one-fifth the range of products currently on offer. Clothes and shoes would be at least three times the price of today’s offerings and we’d have far fewer choices. We wouldn’t have the Internet, nor affordable computers, nor smartphones, nor cheap summer vacations because all those things and thousands more depend on complex global supply chains. Furthermore, those complex global supply chains have created tens of millions of jobs around the world, at home as well as in other countries. If we get rid of globalization, we get rid of all those jobs, devices, clothes, and wide varieties of food.
Loss of shiny toys, affordable clothes, and food would be however just the impact on fat spoiled self-indulgent Westerners. For people living in poor nations for whom globalization permits not only the creation of much-needed jobs but also affordable items like scooters and domestic appliances, the consequences would be catastrophic: a return to abject poverty. Fat spoiled self-indulgent Westerners may choose to ignore this fact, but it’s hardly a moral position to want to sacrifice nearly three billion people on the altar of one’s own desire to wave a placard and virtue-signal to one’s equally self-indulgent friends. Far, far worse is the fact that if we destroy our global economy we cut off small poor nations from medicines, water filtration equipment, and a great many other essential items that only exist because of globalization.
In short, if we weren’t a globalized world, everyone would be infinitely worse off. So logically we should be looking for ways to encourage international cooperation, strengthen supply chains, and continue to create opportunities for billions of people (including fat spoiled self-indulgent Westerners) around the world. After all, if we can’t even cooperate on something that benefits us all, how can we cooperate to face major global challenges like climate change, ecological degradation, and water scarcity?
Human behavior and logic are rarely harmonious, however. Thus what we actually see today is the precise opposite of rationality and self-interest. Everywhere we look, citizens and governments alike are screaming about the need for “independence” and “autonomy” and “protecting our vital capabilities.”
A combination of nationalistic fervor (China and the USA) and mass hysteria nearly everywhere (covid-19) have resulted in huge numbers of people seeking to saw off their own legs under the delusion that this will improve their ability to run. Naïve folk point to the silly rows over distribution of vaccines for SARS-COV-2 and claim that these squabbles prove the necessity of making everything oneself. The reality is the precise opposite.
To take just one example, Pfizer has approximately fifty manufacturing sites around the world and relies on over five thousand suppliers. This has enabled it to scale up vaccine production in a matter of a few short months. Were Pfizer restricted to its home base of the USA, it would have been able to produce, at best, a few hundred thousand doses by now. The same story is true for every other pharmaceuticals company in the world. The inane squabbles of dull-witted politicians over vaccine distribution are only possible because companies like Pfizer have been able to use global presence and global supply chains to manufacture billions of doses.
Without globalization, populist posturing politicians would have no vaccine doses to squabble over and no ability to pander to mindless populism in the hope of garnering votes.
Even worse, fat spoiled self-indulgent Westerners who want to isolate themselves from the rest of the world under the delusion that this would make them self-sufficient are effectively saying they’re happy to prevent people in poor nations from getting the things they need. How can Chad or Honduras build pharmaceuticals expertise? How can Niger and Venezuela manufacture iPhones? How can Laos and Fiji manufacture automobiles?
The posture of Western anti-globalization folk is that we simply ignore all these catastrophic consequences because they will mostly happen to dark-skinned people in countries far away.
Whereas twenty years ago it was possible to imagine a future comprising ever-increasing improvements and inter-dependencies that would draw us closer and closer together, today we see the opposite. Wherever we look, populist-nationalist politicians are exhorting autonomy, independence, and me-firstism. Geopolitical tensions between the West, Russia, and China will inevitably harm everyone concerned. Even within the European Union, a structure explicitly created to diminish the chances of yet another European war, we see populist-nationalist posturing that is straining the fabric of the alliance, aided considerably by Russian troll factories pumping out “patriotic” nonsense eagerly swallowed by “patriots” who are too ignorant and too foolish to see they are being used as “useful idiots.”
So we are entering a period of retreat as each nation seeks to isolate itself from former partners in the delusion that this will make it stronger. But the opposite is true: we’re all embracing a one-way route to backwardness.
At this point, it’s obligatory for naïve folk to babble about the supposed problems created by globalization. And when that fails (because globalization isn’t causing over-fishing or the destruction of the Amazon — that’s down to ordinary human greed and occurs even in isolated nations like North Korea and occurred enormously in the self-sufficient Soviet Union) they then shout about the inequities of globalization and point to instances of malpractice. But this is no different from saying that all mechanized transportation should be banned because some people have accidents. In other words, it’s easy to chant soundbites and wave slogan-bearing placards, but the posture is intellectually incoherent. Of course globalization is flawed. But what does that mean?
Globalization has produced innumerable benefits. It’s also created problems. But only small children think in purely black-and-white terms. Adults know that there are always tradeoffs and costs associated with benefits. Only a fool thinks there can be free ice-cream forever.
As a human endeavor, globalization suffers from all the defects humans can create. There is greed, there is exploitation, there is unfairness. We humans are always ready to take advantage of others and gain advantage where we can. But which is the more coherent and beneficial choice: to smash something up because we can’t be bothered to fix it, or to make continuous improvements so as to diminish the problems? After all, even if we shut down the global economy tomorrow, there will still be plenty of people exploiting others, wrecking the environment, and causing harm. Running away from problems doesn’t solve them and it almost always makes things worse.
Imagine if one morning you decided your kitchen stove wasn’t working as desired: the temperature control wasn’t sensitive enough. Would you smash up your stove and decide to be self-sufficient by amassing a pile of wood in your back garden and use it to create a fire? Or would you look for a way to improve the thermoregulation of the stove, either by installing a new part or by having a maintenance operative come out to repair it?
Being smart and stable geniuses, we’re all chanting “smash the stove!”
Little children live in a world of delightful fantasy and, when tired, little children throw temper-tantrums and smash things. Ideally, as the years pass, we learn to moderate our childhood passions and we learn how inter-connected we all are. But it seems that today we think its smart to reject any attempt to learn even a modicum of wisdom from the passing of the years. Populism and a sensation-seeking mass media have combined to encourage us to become intellectual and emotional infants, seeking instant gratification regardless of how foolish our desires may be, and ready to smash things in a fit of pique whenever we can’t instantly get our own way.
Growing up means we learn that it’s not sufficient to make ourselves feel better by being against something or smashing something. We have to be able to propose viable alternatives that cause less harm and create more benefits than the current posture. Such alternatives are conspicuous by their absence in the current debate about the merits of globalization. Instead, populists spout empty slogans about making their nation great again or taking back control. The results have been predictably catastrophic. Trump weakened the USA to a degree unimaginable a mere five years ago, and Brexit has doomed the UK to ever-greater irrelevance and poverty. Anti-globalization folk are no different from Trump enthusiasts and Brexiteers: they ignore reality and content themselves with mouthing empty feel-good slogans.
Our new age of infantilism will not lead us back to an imaginary wonderworld of nostalgic illusion. It will leave us sitting amid a pile of broken toys, sad and hungry. But in tomorrow’s world there will be no adults who can come in to tidy away the wreckage, pick us up, comfort us, and make everything better.
So perhaps we would be wise to cease gazing backward and focus instead on creating a more adequate future, without illusions and without being duped by mindless soundbites. If we do not, we will bequeath to our children lives far worse than those we’ve ourselves been fortunate enough to enjoy.