Poor and Rich

There is an old European saying anyone who is not a socialist before he is 30 has no heart anyone who is still a socialist after he is 30 has no head. Suitably updated this applies perfectly to the movement against globalization – the movement that made its big splash in Seattle back in 1999 and is going its best to disrupt the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City this weekend.

The facts of globalization are not always pretty. If you buy a product made in a third world country, it was produced by workers who are paid incredibly little by western standards and probably work under awful conditions. Anyone who is bothered by those facts at least some of the time has no heart.

But that doesn’t mean the demonstrators are right. On the contrary; anyone who thinks that the answers to world poverty is simple outrage against global trade has no head or chooses not to use it. The anti-globalization movement already has a remarkable track record of hurting the very people and causes it claims to champion.

Could anything be worse than having children work in sweatshops? Alas, yes. In 1993 child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing under age workers. The direct result as that Bangladesh textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs or on the streets and that significant numbers were forced into prostitution.

The point is that third world countries aren’t poor because their export workers aren’t low wagers it’s the other way around,. Because the countries are poor even what looks to us like bad jobs at bad wages are almost always much better than the alternatives. Millions of Mexicans are migrating to the north of the country to take the low wage export jobs that outrage opponents of NAFTA and those jobs wouldn’t exist if the wages were much higher; the same factors that make poor countries, poor low productivity, bad infrastructure, general social disorganizations mean that such countries can compete on world markets only if they pay wages much lower than those paid in the West.

Of course opponents of globalization have heard this argument and they have answers. At a conference the superiority of traditional rural lifestyles over modern, urban life was discussed a claim that not only flies in the face of the clear fact that many peasants flee to urban jobs as soon as they can, but that (it seems to me) has a disagreeable element of cultural condescension especially given the overwhelming preponderance of white faces in the crowds of demonstrators. Would you want to live in a pre-industrial village? I also heard claims that rural poverty in the third world is mainly the fault of multinational corporations which is just plain wrong but is a convenient belief if you want to think of globalization as unmitigated.

The most sophisticated answer was that the movement doesn’t want to stop export – it just wants better working conditions and higher wages.

But it’s not a serious position. Third world countries desperately need their export industries – they cannot retreat to an imaginary rural Arcadia. They can’t have those export industries unless they are allowed to sell goods produced under conditions that Westerners find appalling by workers who receive very low wages. And that’s a fact that anti-globalization activists refuse to accept.

So who are the bad guys? The activists are getting the images they wanted from Quebec City leaders sitting inside their fortified enclosure with thousands of police protecting them from the outraged masses outside. But images can deceive many of the people inside that chain link fence are sincerely trying to help the world’s poor. And the people outside the fence, what ever their intentions, are doing their best to make the poor poorer.