Globalization as a moral good

By Robert Wright, May 16 2020

The source of globalization’s strength and of its weakness is its non-zero-sum nature. 

Fans of globalization tend to emphasize one side of this non-zero-sumness: the “win-win” side. When I buy a smartphone, I’m helping to pay the wages of workers in various Asian countries, and those workers, in exchange, are building me an affordable smartphone. Win-win!

This win-win dynamic is real. (Which doesn’t mean that no Asian workers are in any sense exploited but does mean that global supply chains have tended to raise wages in low-wage countries and save money for American consumers.) And this dynamic is a basic source of globalization’s stubborn power—one of the main reasons globalization is hard to stop. But to appreciate why globalization isn’t impossible to stop—and why it’s in some ways fragile—you have to appreciate two other game-theoretical things:

1) The flip side of win-win is lose-lose. The typical non-zero-sum game isn’t a game that always comes out win-win. It’s a game that can come out win-win but may come out lose-lose. And globalization, as it proceeds, makes these lose-lose outcomes possible on a larger and larger scale.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example—as was the 2008 American financial crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In different senses, these three international contagions spread through an infrastructure that had been built so that people in distant regions could play win-win games.

To put it another way, the “interdependence” that globalization famously fosters boils down to a correlation of fortunes: good news for someone halfway around the world can be good news for me, but bad news for someone halfway around the world can be bad news for me. Win-win or lose-lose—but, either way, non-zero-sum.

It’s when the infrastructure of globalization starts carrying waves of bad news that globalization is most vulnerable to political backlash. And Covid-19 has brought two waves of very bad news—first the viral contagion itself and, second, a contagion of economic contraction.

What heightens the political vulnerability of globalization, especially at times like this, is the second game-theoretical thing:

2. Non-zero-sum games are often intertwined with zero-sum games. Because of globalization, some American workers—especially in the manufacturing sector—have been playing a zero-sum game with low-wage Asian workers. And a lot of those games have been won by Asian workers and lost by American workers. Of course, when these American workers put on their consumer hat and go buy a smartphone, they become winners. But if you lose your union job at GM and wind up doing nighttime custodial work in a Detroit office building, you don’t put your consumer hat on as often as you used to.

That Donald Trump got elected president is among the signs that America has failed these workers. There are various ways it could have served them better: provided support and retraining after they lost their jobs; struck bilateral trade deals that reduced the exposure of these workers to foreign competition; or (my personal favorite) tried to achieve that reduced exposure via multilateral trade rules that, among other things, elevate labor and environmental standards in low-wage countries.

A more radical approach would have been to not just lessen exposure to foreign competition—not just give workers more time to adapt their skills to the new world, not just reduce the pay cut they had to take to stay competitive—but to deeply insulate them from that competition. You could do that with super steep and non-negotiable tariffs or even by flat-out banning imports of cars and other products. These are the kinds of proposals favored by people who want to stop globalization in its tracks, even reverse it.

Amid the pandemic, with anti-China sentiment growing, we’re starting to see proposals roughly this radical. I discuss a couple of pretty radical proposals—one from the right and one from the left—in the piece below.

There are various reasons I oppose such extreme approaches to protecting workers, some of them economic (steep and enduring tariffs can undermine a country’s industrial base), and some of them having to do with other policy areas. (See piece below.) But what I want to focus on now is what you might call a moral reason to oppose such extreme approaches—or, to turn it around, a moral argument in favor of globalization.

Since humans started producing chronicles of their exploits five millennia ago, one consistent motif has been large numbers of people killing large numbers of other people. Wars have been fought along ethnic lines, along national lines, along lines of empire, fought by patriots, by proxies, by mercenaries—but they’ve always been fought. In fact, so chronic have they been that the post-World-War-II era, for all the conflict and death it has seen, stands out as strangely peaceful. There has been no direct military conflict between great powers, and the number of people killed in war—as a percentage of the world’s population—is way, way lower than in the preceding 75 years and also lower than in the 75 years before that.

Why? Theories differ. Nuclear weapons, especially during the Cold War, may have played a role by making war among great powers drastically lose-lose. But I think the growing economic entanglement of nations brought by globalization has also played a big role.

One reason is that economic interdependence, like nuclear weapons, makes war more lose-lose. If you think the pandemic’s early shutdown of Chinese factories created supply-chain problems for US companies, imagine if America spent a year or two bombing those factories!

But I think globalization’s pacifying tendencies go beyond just changing the formal calculus behind war. I think they rest not only on the fact of globalization but on the fabric of globalization. The number of Americans who personally know Europeans and Asians and other foreigners is way higher today than it was forty, sixty, eighty years ago. And many of these relationships are about business—whether it’s people on different continents doing some deal, or working together on some ongoing project, or just communicating in mundane ways that help sustain a commercial relationship between two companies.  

These relationships are by and large non-zero-sum, but putting it that way makes it sound misleadingly clinical. A non-zero-sum relationship doesn’t just create the abstract logic behind cooperation; it can also activate the part of human psychology designed (by natural selection) to foster cooperation—the part that makes us want to like people, to be open to things about them that may be different from us and may have at first seemed strange. It leads us to forgive them for little slights, to give them the benefit of the doubt. Globalization can strengthen the fabric of good will.

Of course, the aforementioned, more problematic aspects of globalization—the lose-lose aspect, the win-lose aspect—can, as they’re doing now, test that fabric. Just as win-win games can bring out the best in human nature, other kinds of games can bring out the worst—especially when politicians find the worst part of human nature useful.

So globalization isn’t anywhere near a moral panacea. But it’s a force that challenges us to evolve morally, to broaden our horizons, to join a tribe that’s not defined by national, ethnic, or religious bounds. The logic behind globalization doesn’t guarantee that we’ll meet this moral challenge, but at least it gives us a powerful reason to try. 

In fact, as technology progresses, that logic piles reason on reason. Climate change, cybercrime, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and biological weapons—all these and many more such challenges are non-zero-sum problems, problems that can best, and maybe only, be solved via international cooperation. So they add to the argument for nurturing the non-zero-sum part of human psychology, the part that reaches out across chasms of cultural, ethnic, or national difference and explores the possibility of peace, even fellowship, with the Other. 

In the Koran, God tells humankind that he “made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another.” In the 14 centuries that followed Muhammad’s uttering of these words, the evolution of technology—transportation and communication technology especially—allowed, and sometimes encouraged,  tribes and nations to do exactly that. 

In the early twentieth century, reflecting on the resulting infrastructure of information technology, the mystical Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote presciently, "Humanity... is building its composite brain beneath our eyes.” He added, “May it not be that tomorrow, through the logical and biological deepening of the movement drawing it together, it will find its heart, without which the ultimate wholeness of its power of unification can never be achieved?" I wish I could say confidently that the answer is yes. What I feel more confident of is that, thanks to the logic of globalization, this may indeed be the ultimate question.  

This site features only a fraction of the writing I publish in my newsletter.

Please, consider subscribing.