Globalism is in full-on retreat, or so I’ve been given to understand. Cosmopolitans, your name is mud. This is the year when conservatives start thumbing their noses at soft borders, interventionist foreign policy, and even free trade. We’re sick of liberals and their snooty multiculturalism. Up with nationalism, localism, boosterism, protectionism, and mom’s apple pie! It’s a big world, after all.
Why is this happening? If you’ve paid even a modicum of attention to recent discussions of Brexit, Trumpism, and related cultural currents, you’ve fully grasped by now that the common man is feeling alienated and marginalized, and doesn’t intend to take it anymore. That prompts a further question, however. To what extent can globalism really retreat?
People have been tilting against this particular windmill since the end of the Cold War. (Remember the ’90s and the protests against the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and other international organizations?) Conservatives have traditionally held (with our pinkies prominently elevated) that there are fundamental truths about our globalized world that are bound to resurface however we try to bury them. Even conservatives, though, have started flooding the anti-globalization bandwagon in this election year.
Peering through the murk, what we see in our current political memes is a noisy celebration of half-truths and half-baked ideas. Yes, there are some real insights to glean from the currents of this tumultuous year. Some of the pieties of yesteryear remain true, however, even if we feel less enthusiasm for them.
To illustrate this, I will present these points in pairs. First comes the now-popular half-truth. Then comes the uncomfortable rest of the story.
Popular Half-Truth One
Free markets serve some people better than others. The market is a harsh mistress. Plenty of innocents have been trampled over the years. You might work your way to the top of a field, only to see your job handed over to a lower-cost employee in Mumbai, or (perhaps even worse) to a machine. Even the brilliant and hard-working have to live with the risk that unforeseeable shifts in the market might pulverize their start-up or small business at any time.
In short, market forces are unfair, and often culturally destabilizing. They don’t really lift all the boats, all of the time. Conservatives of yesteryear sometimes got a bit hyperbolic in discussing the magic of markets. Likewise, they were too blasé about connecting temporal success with virtue. Yes, the hard-working and responsible are more likely to get rich. But unscrupulousness and stinginess can help, too, and some people just get lucky.
Here are two promises that a politician or pundit should never make. 1) History is over. 2) The good times will just keep rolling. Let’s remember that in future.
Unpopular Reality One
All the alternatives are worse, even (or especially) for the common man. Of course no country really has absolutely free markets. Virtually everyone agrees there are some good reasons for regulating trade.
When people run down free trade, though, they’re almost never worrying about narcotics or heavy explosives. They’re angry because the market has shifted in such a way as to make some people rich, while others lose their livelihood. Watching (some) rich get richer while (some) poor stay poor, they conclude that the system is rigged to benefit the rich.
Actually that’s exactly backwards. Free-market economics recommends un-rigging the system as much as we possibly can. It’s basically a kind of economic realism. Instead of looking for strategies to hide the real effects of global change (all of which have winners and losers, but usually more losers), it recommends that we seek cultural and political strategies for adapting ourselves to the world as it is.
Realistically, modern governments have a very poor track record at molding markets to serve social goals. When we try to do this (as in the housing market crisis in 2008), the greedy and corrupt usually find ways to exploit the inefficiencies, and that’s just the start of the undesirable ramifications.
If you think less-free markets are better for the common man, you favor handing elites greater power and discretion, trusting that they will have the wisdom and integrity to use it for the common good. Think about that for a while.
Popular Half-Truth Two
Global policing sometimes goes badly wrong. Few things demoralize a society like unsuccessful wars. Most people now think the Iraq War was a tragic and expensive mistake, and that sense of failure has left a lot of lingering bitterness. Unsurprisingly, Americans are unenthusiastic just now about playing global cop. The resentment is especially intense inasmuch as our political class has relatively little involvement in the military, which makes their failures especially embittering for the people whose kids do enlist.
Unpopular Reality Two
It’s not safe to leave tyrants to themselves. Fruitless wars are clearly bad. Who would argue? But geopolitics is a perilous game, no matter how you play it. You can’t just opt out and assume things will turn out well.
What if our isolationist mood serves as the permission slip global tyrants need to make their move? The world has become more turbulent under President Obama. That’s at least partly because of the widespread perception that he is feckless and lacks resolve. If we crawl even further into our shells, will the world erupt in another massive conflagration, as happened after the First World War?
Popular Half-Truth Three
Urban elites are thriving because they use their disproportionate influence to advantage themselves and their friends. We might think of this as “the privilege narrative,” and it’s partly true. The rich and powerful generally support policies that are good for them and the people they know. Those may or may not serve the common good more generally, and the people who pass them may or may not care.
There’s also a lot of evidence that America’s classes have been diverging more sharply in recent decades, both economically and culturally. That leaves our elites both less sensitive to, and less concerned about, the needs of compatriots outside their own social sphere.
This dynamic manifests itself across many different facets of life. We have a tax code full of loopholes that the wealthy know how to exploit. We have universities that help the children of the elite find “their sort of people” in ways that are officially meritocratic. Doctors and lawyers have myriad strategies (mainly through licensing and credentialing) for protecting the doors to their professions, thus preserving some measure of stability for themselves. Taxi drivers and janitors are at the mercy of the market.
The political sphere is the worst of all. Washington DC guzzles resources from across the country as power becomes ever more centralized in our federal government. In the public sector, you don’t necessarily have to prove your effectiveness to keep drawing a six-figure salary. Also, “privilege” manifests its ugliest face in political graft and cronyism, which are proof-positive that many people feel the world owes them a very handsome living just for being their elite selves.
Unpopular Reality Three
Cultures and labor markets change. People who can’t adapt will inevitably pay a price. Educated urbanites may be self-serving much of the time, but that isn’t the only reason they’re thriving. They also have skills and rarified areas of knowledge that we really do need in a world that is becoming ever more interconnected. They produce and achieve things that people in Fishtown still want, even as they curse the makers.
Four years ago, in our “I did too build that” phase, we celebrated entrepreneurs’ productivity. Now we’re damning elites for their corruption and sense of entitlement. But this is mostly the same group of people, and both insights are still largely true. Our meritocrats are entitled, out of touch, highly productive, and adaptable.
Meanwhile, many of the people wearing Trump hats still yearn for a decades-old culture and labor market that cannot be recreated. We live in a fast-paced world; people who get lost in nostalgia are inevitably going to suffer for that, whether in concrete terms (lost wages) or less-measurable ones (cultural irrelevance and a loss of self-respect).
The constant elite-bashing is troubling, not because elites are innocent, but because it’s so obviously a form of scapegoating. If we blame everything on the rich, we won’t feel pressed to make necessary changes in our own corner of the woods. Realistically, though, our society is changing in some unavoidable ways. Adapt.
Bonus Unpopular Reality Four
We’re still drowning in debt. This is the one that gets to me the most. The past several months have treated us to an ongoing (and rather cantankerous) argument about our nation’s past and future, in which even conservatives seem reluctant to mention the obvious: our nation is deeply indebted, and committed to entitlement and pension structures we can’t possibly sustain. When do we get to start talking about that again?
We can’t save our politics by hiding from the realities that will inevitably shape our future. Let’s bring this back to the ground, conservatives.