We Must Keep Globalization in Its Place: The Marketplace

Globalization’s power to improve the world has been undermined by its own incursions into the public arena.

How can any reasonable, thinking person be against globalization? After all, it promotes economic development, particularly in disadvantaged countries, lowers costs to consumers, and by connecting people around the world, helps to avert conflicts.

How can any reasonable, thinking person be for globalization? After all, it exacerbates income disparities, particularly in developed countries, threatens communities with cultural assimilation, and weakens national sovereignties.

It is remarkable how many people line up either for or against globalization and then dismiss the other side. Who’s right?

Neither.

Those who embrace globalization are no more thoughtful than those who dismiss it. We should all be lining up for and against globalization, to retain what is constructive about it while challenging what has become destructive. We need to keep globalization in its place, namely the marketplace, where it creates value, while keeping it out of the public space, where it has become increasingly destructive.

The central problem is that what we refer to today as globalization is really economic globalization: It enables economic forces to prevail over social concerns and democratic precepts. In economic globalization, multinational companies play governments off one another in their quest for reduced taxes and suspended regulations, while local communities have to compete for jobs that can be no more reliable than the next better offer from elsewhere. There is no ensured, sustainable employment in this model. Globalization may connect us everywhere, but it is rooted nowhere.

Economic globalization threatens decades of social and political development. Trade pacts allow companies to sue sovereign governments over legislation that reduces their profits, while companies like Uber ride roughshod over local regulations and the likes of Facebook and Google challenge our autonomy and sense of agency.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s forgotten concept of “countervailing power” can help us understand what has been happening. Countervailing forces arise in democratic societies to offset concentrated centers of power, as unions did in America with the rise of large corporations. But organized labor is not the power it once was, and no other power has risen to offset that of global corporations.

The most obvious candidate to fill the void would be a truly global governmental body, but the United Nations is hardly that. The globe may be amalgamating economically, but it remains fragmented politically and socially. Indeed, the most powerful international agencies — the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, all ardently economic — have been economic globalization’s cheerleaders.

How, then, to face this corporate hegemony? The challenge will have to begin from the ground up. Perhaps never before have so many people been prepared to vote with their feet, their ballots, and their pocketbooks. This energy will have to be harnessed to encourage the good in globalization while mitigating its most apparent harms. We need organized, positive actions — not the reactionary fear of the Brexit and Trump votes.

Such efforts will have to take root locally, with concerned citizens acting thoughtfully in their communities. And such efforts will have to be connected globally, through social media, to bring direct pressure to bear on objectionable behaviors while prodding governments to act more decisively. Communities have been the places where major social change has often begun — with a tea party in the Boston harbor or a woman boarding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. From such sparks have come significant groundswells that have transformed societies. (For various suggestions to redress the imbalance in society, see “Going Public With My Puzzle.”)

If we do not act to limit the power of economic globalization, we shall be facing greater social disruption, the election of more tyrants, and the further deterioration of our democratic institutions.

We certainly need strong enterprises. But not “free enterprise,” if that means the pursuit of profit released from social responsibility. Not, at least, if we aim to remain free people.