Want to hear something spooky? Listen to John Maynard Keynes looking back on the halcyon era just before the start of World War I, and ask yourself if it rings any bells.
"The inhabitant of London," the great economist recalled, "could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages. ... Most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement."
The war blasted all this to smithereens. The economic protectionism that followed helped push the world into the Great Depression and another war, to say nothing of the economic and cultural ice age of communism. But Keynes might as well have been talking about the Internet Economy, which enables more and more of us to click our way to goods, services and investments without regard to distance.
Nowadays we too seem to believe things will always be this way. The spread of information and technology, the movement of goods and ideas and people - all of it is taken for granted, especially by the educationally endowed, who seem to carry around, along with their cell phones and handheld organizers, a burden of guilt that prevents them from defending too loudly the embarrassing state of affairs that has led to their good fortune. Globalization, after all, has a bad name. Who wouldn't like to get McDonald's off the Champs Elysees, or get Third World children out of factories and into schools?
Victims of the increasing mobility of capital, labor and thoughts are easy to find, yet the millions upon millions of beneficiaries go quietly about their business, building better lives for themselves, their families and their societies. Now that it's unfashionable to blame everything on the Jews, the world's footloose malcontents have seized on globalization.
Unmoved by decades of desperate poverty in countries such as Bangladesh, as well as U.S. unemployment approaching zero, a collection of anarchists, reactionaries, luddites and leftists have banded together to protect the Third World from the horrors of economic development.
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, a pair of tough-minded journalists at the Economist, believe that these misguided do-gooders and their fellow travelers (who include tyrants, vested elites and others threatened by open markets) pose a profound threat to the fragile network of commerce and people that has so far helped deliver the remarkable peace and prosperity we now enjoy.
The authors' persuasive message in their important new book, A Future Perfect, is that while globalization is indeed good, it is by no means inevitable, and that if someone doesn't start defending it soon, it could go away.
Fortunately, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are up to the task. One of the many virtues of this passionate and readable work is that the authors know too much about history, as well as about the world, to assume that the current situation must persist, and they take up the argument for globalization with refreshing candor and verve, ranging across continents and deep into the history of ideas.
Again and again they surprise us with potent anecdotes and apropos statistics. They describe a world so interconnected that people in India guard office buildings in California ("the security pictures are simply sent by satellite"), yet they also note that "by some measurements, the world is not that much more 'global' than it was a century ago: Much of the final quarter of the 20th century was spent merely recovering ground lost in the previous 75 years."
In the authors' bracing company we meet a fascinating array of winners and losers, and hear a great deal of good sense about what can - and must - be done for those left behind.
The range of their research is at times breathtaking. Who knew that America's civil service is twice the size it was in 1960? That the undernourished Parisians who stormed the Bastille were 5 feet 2 inches tall vs. the average 5 foot 10 inches their ancestors are today? That theatrical productions of Phantom of the Opera have done better at the box office than the movie Titanic? That the assets of the world's three richest men exceeded the combined gross national product of countries that are home to 600 million people? And that in 1908 the French, now battling to keep Hollywood blockbusters at bay, owned 70 percent of the U.S. film market?
But Micklethwait and Wooldridge never allow their central message to be lost in this hurricane of information. They fervently believe and convincingly demonstrate that most troubles laid at the door of globalization have other causes; that the winners in this process far outnumber the losers; and that the process isn't just about money, but also about freedom. They also make it plain that those who seek to control the destiny of others have the most to fear in all this.
Personally, I think globalization is inevitable - in the long run. But as Keynes famously said, in the long run we are all dead. Meanwhile, read this brilliant book. You have a moral obligation to act on it lest people become seduced by the bizarre collection of activists (from Patrick Buchanan to Susan Sarandon) who seem bent on turning back the global clock.
The great irony, of course, is that the most-affluent beneficiaries of globalization will be the last to suffer if the world is once again divided and enclosed by protectionism. Blessed with schooling and drive, they will always do fine, whereas the poorest people on earth, deprived of economic development, will see their lives blasted back to 1914.
Daniel Akst is a contributing writer for The Standard and a columnist for the New York Times.