Localism vs. Globalism

by Daniel Larison on March 23, 2009 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Region & Place


Mark Thompson has penned a challenging broadside against skeptics of free trade, including me, and he makes a number of arguments that deserve to be answered. There does not seem to me to be much to the argument that commerce and trade do not weaken distinctions between different local and regional cultures. Clearly, they do, and I think it is clear through the networks of dependence that trade creates that local economies suffer the same atrophying effects as local cultures, all of which expose the people in these localities to greater disruptions when those networks break down or demand dries up. Localists tend to take for granted that dependence on distant centers of wealth and power, which the interdependence at the heart of globalism requires, is antithetical to a decentralized political and economic order. I can imagine why someone might want to reject such a decentralized order, but I simply don’t see how someone maintains that it is compatible with the results of globalist policies.

If regional differences remain in the U.S., they are much less pronounced today than ever before thanks to a combination of mass mobility, technological advance facilitating rapid transport and communication across the continent and shared consumer culture. Minnesotans may not eat fatback and Vermonters may not eat rellenos, but everyone is importing the same pork from the same factory farms in the Midwest, and perhaps the less said about the homogenizing effects of the national Buffalo wing phenomenon the better. We are steadily moving towards the economic, cultural and political monoculture that Thompson claims we are avoiding.

Cultural homogenization on one level has advanced rapidly as transplants relocate from place to place, the highway system has reduced barriers of time and space between different parts of the country and television and radio have steadily eradicated distinctive accents in mass communication, which gradually eliminates them from everyday life as well. At the same time, there has also been fragmentation and dispersion as people have tended towards identifying with others who have similar lifestyles and tastes, so that they can pretend that they belong to non-localized “communities” while becoming steadily more alienated from their actual neighbors. Considering this, Charles Murray’s assumption that the institution of community is somehow being kept “robust and vital” in the current American model is questionable. For Murray, it is necessary to assert:

“Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically.

This doesn’t seem true at all, but it is the sort of “clarification” that one has to make to defend the model as one that strengthens, rather than enervates, communities.

Thompson is on shakiest ground when he writes:

If a particular industry is so incredibly important to a region or culture, then why can’t that region or culture continue participating in that industry once the primary corporation leaves? Isn’t this, after all, what the whole “Buy Local” movement is about? Why must we only “make things” if we can make fistfuls of money doing it – can’t we “make things” as a hobby? At the very least, can’t we just “make things” on a smaller scale? Put another way, if we believe that it is so important to “make things” to have a vibrant economy, then the way to do that is to, well, “make things.” It’s not to figure out a way to make it profitable to “make things” for sale within our own borders.

I assume this is a sharp bit of polemical rhetoric, or perhaps a joke, because I don’t see how Thompson can’t really understand that depriving a local economy of investment capital makes it impossible for a town or region to just keep “making things.” The communities and regions most adversely affected by the effects of trade agreements are not going to have the time or resources to keep “making things” as they once did, not even on a reduced scale, but either sink into recession or retool entirely to try to pull in other industries.

Localists may not like many of the disruptive effects of “creative destruction,” but I think it is safe to say that we understand the need for incentives and, yes, some profit for economic enterprises to endure. Indeed, I am bit baffled by this entire passage. It is as if those of us critiquing free trade regimes think that people are not self-interested and do not respond to incentives, but that they are all altruists with a built-in overdeveloped sense of solidarity with their neighbors. On the contrary, it is because we know that they are not automatically the latter that there need to be measures that guard against unduly cheap competition from abroad and policies that encourage or reward companies for relocating operations overseas should be resisted. Of course, we are not interested in people making things just to make things as a hobby, nor do I think most of us are interested in people making things that no one is willing to buy at a good price, but we are instead interested in local economies that do not need to rely nearly so much on vast networks of transportation and supply.

For the record, I don’t think the nature of a polity’s trade policies necessarily makes it more or less likely to go to war, just as I don’t believe for a minute that democratization makes states more peaceful. As with democratization, which has tended to intensify and prolong international wars thanks to factors of mass mobilization and total warfare, I think trade policies that create greater interdependence may make small wars by great powers more frequent and they do not make wars between great powers any less likely. Theorists of democratic peace cannot make sense of the war between the two most thoroughly democratic polities of the mid-19th century (the Union and Confederacy), and theorists of an economic liberal peace cannot account for that war between two parts of what had been an enormous free trading zone. One might as well craft a theory of international relations that cannot explain the origins of WWI–such a theory would be essentially useless. If shared economic interests through trade discourage certain conflicts (a British-American war over Venezuela in the 1890s, for instance), they create, widen and escalate others. Europe has not suffered another major continental war since 1945 in large part because it served as the effectively occupied territory of the superpowers for half a century, and continues to live under the protection of U.S. security guarantees, all of which has sublimated European security competition between major states. The fairly artificial and (presumably) temporary U.S. guarantees permitted the creation of the EU, but there is no guarantee that such a trade zone would have precluded warfare or ensures that there will not be renewed warfare in Europe in the future.

On the other hand, part of overseeing the convergence I mentioned earlier involved the maintenance of U.S. hegemony, which has involved several significant foreign wars and numerous smaller military interventions over at least the last thirty years. As Bacevich says in The Limits of Power:

The chief responsibility [of the "indispensable nation"] was to preside over a grand project of political-economic convergence and integration commonly referred to as globalization. In point of fact, however, globalization served as a euphemism for soft, or informal, empire.

Naturally, the focus on global governance came at the expense of local and national security:

Odd as they may seem, these priorities reflected a core principle of national security policy: When it came to defending vital American interests, asserting control over the imperial periphery took precedence over guarding the nation’s own perimeter.

American towns routinely pay the price for the policies of political-economic convergence with respect to trade, and American cities have since paid the price for the policies of imperial management. Not only is globalism antithetical to localism in theory, but the policies that facilitate it are directly or indirectly harmful to American localities themselves.

Cross-posted at Eunomia

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Empedocles March 24, 2009 at 8:26 am

Here’s another strange passage:
“It is difficult for a culture to maintain its identity when it must rely on everything it cannot produce itself from a highly limited number of other cultures – the more the Northeast must rely on the Midwest for not only some agricultural products, but also for its cars, its clothes, etc., the more the Northeast will become like the Midwest – and vice versa.”

That seems just completely false to me. It looks at the issue completely backwards concentrating on what the region imports versus what it produces. Localities come to see those things that they produce themselves as part of their identity. Thus, the Green Bay Packers, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Milwaukee Brewers. Cities used to refer to themselves as The Motor City, the Furniture City, the Brass City, etc. Globalization it creating a case where either the entire US actually produces nothing other than “services” and where everywhere in the US we produce that exact same thing.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 24, 2009 at 10:53 am

Perhaps “Community can embrace those who are scattered geographically” but this definition would be an edited one that asserts a “community” is only of the like-minded. Cheery babblers twittering away about the various produce of a packaged age.

The champions of unfettered globalism who assert that Walmart is wonderful because people were “sick of the local dry goods operator who robbed them blind” generally refuse to factor in the costs of deteriorating building stock and infrastructure….and the life within them that failed to see anything but a whispering hint of the boom gone recently bust. Drive the interstate stem to stern…the sinew that is the frontier of globalist reveries and you will be hard-pressed to find a downtown restaurant, let alone a functioning downtown once you run the plastic gauntlet of the chain eateries flanking gas stations and motels along the artery originally designed to move military personnel and hardware across the continent efficiently.

Once again, it is an either-or proposition tied intimately with military projection. One is either pragmatic and forward thinking and in support of globalism or a luddite romantic, tethered to resentful dreams while living a prosaic life in the hinterland. It would even appear that the Boosters of Globalism take it as an article of faith that we must liberate other cultures and produce a consumptive military chamber of commerce that is bankrupting us while manufacturing generations of resentful wogs with a kind of factory line precision.

That we remain, as a culture.. unable to critically appraise the costs and benefits of the recent global bubble even as we suffer from its intemperance is about as good a reason as any that I can think of to refute the addled definition of a community that it can simply be an embrace of those who are scattered geographically. If this armed adventure into penury be globalism, I’d say the globe has a good case for the prosecution of a libel complaint.

avatar James Matthew Wilson March 24, 2009 at 12:30 pm

This post and the comments appended makes a convincing case against the interesting but, I concur, errant post on the “Ordinary Gentlemen” blog.

My original post arose as supplementary reflection to my “Empire of Addiction, Part I” essay, and I shall delay detailed response to the material here or elsewhere until I publish “Part II” next month. However, I should like to second Sabin’s fine observation that Thompson’s argument and most other pro-free trade arguments reduce the question to a misleading dualism.

As my “Empire” essay intimates, for free traders to assert that “protectionism” is a uniform, thoughtless, and dull minded response to the rising inequalities and economic instabilities of a global free trade regime is the least excusable of libels. To the contrary, it is free trade (and for that matter, most forms of free market theory) that is most “thoughtless” or anti-intellectual. Human reason cannot really create communities or societies on its own steam, and to that extent it is a relatively limited force. The more we exercise it boldly, the more aware we become of natural laws and limitations that guide its proper functioning and punish its ill use. But we can see that the constant use of practical and prudential reason is part-and-parcel to social and political life. Theories, or, I should say, ideologies like “free trade” as well as its straw man antagonist, “protectionism”, both suggest that the human reason normally opperative in the self-government of a society should be turned off, that it should, by a leap of faith that contradicts all experience, simply allow supposedly impersonal, universal, and benevolent processes to unfold; the rising tide, we are told, will lift all ships.

Far from being a mere “protectionist,” I would argue that “free trade” is a great evil not only because of its consequences for societies (and these are abundant), but because, after the fashion of all ideologies, it tries to create a uniform, minutely regulated system to substitute for the natural and prudential exercise of the human reason. As a critic of “free trade” I do not necessarily recommend the banning of all imports and exports. No one does! That’s why accusations of protectionism are always directed at a straw man, not a a real one. Rather, the problem with free trade is that it eliminates prudential reasoning entirely by replacing it with a legalistic bureaucracy that works to eliminate all variation in the nature and administration of laws. It has to, since such a regime’s goal is to eliminate the variation of laws in local and particular circumstances.

Therefore, it takes all agency away from individual societies and communities affected by such policies. In some localities, a free trade arrangement might be advantageous, in many it would not; in most, some prudently negotiated open and closed trade policies would likely emerge — were the people actually affected by such policies allowed to shape them. This kind of self-government in commerce for individual polities may be in some ways inefficient, because it requires the regular and particularly applied use of human reason. As Tocqueville observes, this is frustrating to the half-intelligent and harrassed who seek shelter in the great shadow of generalized ideas. But if politics is an exercise in practical reason, any blanket theory that robs that reason of its power and relieves it of duties is likely to result in an insidious kind of tyranny.

Contrary to Thompson, I do not see the destruction of local culture as the one, or perhaps even the main, entity under threat in a free-trade global regime. Even North Korea is infested with American mass cultural kitsch of the type Thompson celebrates as “local” culture. The worthy exercise of the practical reason through local self-government is also threatened. But my arguments were mainly targeted at the stratification that occurs in a free trade regime: property and wealth necessarily become concentrated even as in gross they may increase; inevitable and desirable inequalities get exacerbated and become grotesque and injurious; and, finally and above all, a country like the United States positions itself for short term capital growth that, in the long term, undermines the core infrastructure of a sustainable and stable economy.

avatar Kevin Carson March 24, 2009 at 11:20 pm

I fully agree with your general assessment of the negative consequences of globalization–economic dependence on distant centers of power, cultural homogenization, etc.

Your mistake (and Mark Thompson’s mistake as well) is equating corporate globalization to “free trade.”

What we have is subsidized trade and corporate protectionism on a massive scale.

Government subsidizes the export of capital through foreign aid and World Bank loans to build the utility and road infrastructure overseas without which offshoring couldn’t be profitable.

Government subsidizes long-distance shipping (highway and civil aviation subsidies, keeping the sea lanes open at taxpayer expense, etc.).

Perhaps most importantly, so-called “intellectual property” serves the same protectionist function, for TNCs, that tariffs did for the old national industrial economies of a century ago. They create artificial “comparative advantage” by erecting toll gates against the free flow of technology and information, and secure corporate ownership of the latest generation of production technology.

It’s probably no coincidence that the dominant profitable sectors in the corporate global economy all pursue business models that rely heavily on “intellectual property” (software and entertaiment), direct government subsidies (agribusiness and armaments), or both (electronics and biotech).

If you take a look at the largest TNCs, they’re only nominally private. What we have is an interlocking directorate of corporate and state bureaucracies. To call the corporate bureaucracies “private” is as misleading and meaningless as to say the feudal nobility were private landowners.

There’s a difference between “trade” and “free trade.” When you subsidize something, you get more of it. And we’ve got a lot more trade now than we’d have in a free market. If we had genuine free trade (everybody free to do business with any willing party, on whatever terms they could negotiate on their own, with no subsidies, no patents and copyrights, no trademark law, no protections of any kind, and no government role in forcibly opening up foreign markets for American business), we’d have the optimal market quantity of foreign trade–in other words, a hell of a lot less of it. We’d have relocalized economies of small-scale production for local use.

Unfortunately, the establishment left and establishment right seem to have a mirror-image vested interest in the “globalization=free trade” meme. The right benefits from the pretense that all those corporate turtles got up on those fenceposts by being such good climbers in the “free market.” The left benefits from the pretense that a big government controlled by liberal social engineers is necessary to stop the turtles from climbing up there.

In fact big business wouldn’t even exist if the corporate economy hadn’t been created by a top-down government revolution in the late 19th century.

The ostensible enmity between big business and big government is about as phony as the “good cop/bad cop” routine in an interrogation room. The folks on the right who squeal about big government are a bit like Bre’r Rabbit hollering “Please don’t fling me in that briar patch.” And liberals who regulate the economy for “progressive” purposes almost always wind up being useful idiots for big business (Google “Baptists and Bootleggers”).

avatar James Matthew Wilson March 25, 2009 at 8:27 am

For what it’s worth, I would add my voice to Mr. Carson’s. I tried to imply that by putting scare quotes around “free trade,” though I did that inconsistently.

It is entirely possible that a true form of free trade could be the result of a prudential decision — as could, for that matter, certain kinds of subsidies that his strict advocacy of a true free trade might forbid. Between the two — a local, prudential decision for free trade or one for subsidy — I would tend to agree the former is more likely to fortify a lasting kind of prosperity.

To mention my “Empire of Addiction” essay one more time (!), it is the kind of “free trade” we have developed that has made any real free market unmanagable and has consequently necessitated the growth of the welfare/warfare state.

avatar Mark Thompson March 25, 2009 at 12:44 pm


I have pulled back some of my argument pretty significantly at the link with my name above. Also at that link, I have responded more directly to some of your points in your comments above.

The big disagreement I have with your argument is that it assumes that the US Government is a meaningful representative of an individual society or community. If a community thinks that its interests are best served through some form of protectionism, then I ultimately have little objection to its doing so. But as a practical matter, local governments lack the Constitutional authority to maintain a formal trade policy; even if they had such authority, the implementation of tariffs and/or subsidies would ordinarily require implementation on a much wider scale than the community level to be effective. An official US national policy of free trade alleviates (though it does not eliminate) these problems because it permits localities to engage in self-help, both official and unofficial, short of tariffs and subsidies (though informal subsidies may be possible on a local level) without nationalizing the costs of that self-help.

Also, I think it is simply untrue that I assume “protectionism” to mean a prohibition on trade – quite the contrary, I explicitly associate it with tariffs and subsidies, which obviously reduce but do not eliminate trade.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 25, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Theres no small truth to what Carson asserts…..maybe it is as Gandhi asserted about “Western Culture” when asked about his feelings for it ….to paraphrase…”Free Trade?… somebody should try it sometime”.

avatar Steve Nicoloso March 25, 2009 at 3:19 pm

“Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically.

What’s the deal with this misappropriation of otherwise perfectly serviceable words? Community ought rather being construed as that group of persons, many of whom you’d prefer not to embrace, but that you put up with anyway.

Sabin’s comment hits the nail right on the head! If you spend $trillions (highways, wars, regulations, &c.) in order to facilitate “free” trade, then one thing it is not is free.

avatar limitedgovernment April 10, 2009 at 11:18 pm

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