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the Dead Hand
The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism
By Brink Lindsey
John Wiley & Sons
368 pgs. US$29.95/C$46.50
The struggle for economic freedom
By Steven Martinovich
Fewer words have a dirtier reputation among both liberals and conservatives as does globalization. It's an interesting historical footnote that while the Seattle riots were largely the work left-wing radicals, more than a few conservatives sympathized with their avowed aim to stop the march of globalization even while they excoriated them for their violent tactics. Both fear that the sovereignty of nations is placed at risk, that unfettered trade destabilizes societies, that globalization smashes indiscriminately elements in our carefully ordered socities.
In Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism, Brink Lindsey argues that far from being a dangerous force, globalization - or perhaps more accurately, global capitalism - promises to usher in an era of unparalleled prosperity. In fact, he says at several points, we are only in a transition period between an era of collectivism - the dead hand that the book's title refers to - and a future of unrestrained trade.
"When the swirl of contemporary events is placed in proper context, it becomes clear that globalization is not some demonic force unloosed the world. Rather, it has been a deliberately chosen response to the worldwide failures of central planning and top-down control," he writes early on.
As Lindsey tells it, globalization was in full progress in the late 19th century. Led by nations like Britain, trade laws across the planet were being liberalized, promoting not only the freer movement of goods but also of people. Unfortunately, however, the movement towards greater economic freedom was derailed by two successive world wars and the increased centralization that came after. Where the consensus was once that barriers to trade were an anathema, the story of the 20th century was more Karl Marx's Dead Hand then Adam Smith's Invisible Hand.
Given the vitriol that the opponents of globalization bring to the table, Lindsey took on what is often a thankless job. Global capitalism, arising out of the rubble of a century's worth of collectivist destruction, is in "a twilight era juxtaposed between the statist past and a liberal future," and as such its defenders are subject to attacks by the partisans of top-down planning, or what Lindsey calls the Industrial Counterrevolution. For proponents of global capitalism, it's a comforting note when Lindsey declares, "Hostility to markets remains, and remains formidable, but only as a force of reaction."
Global capitalism, argues Lindsey, faces a long haul before it becomes a reality. Free trade, whether between nations or individuals, rests on important pillars like adequate legal institutions that protect capitalism's participants. In many nations around the world, even those who subscribe to the merits of free trade, legal structures are at best half-built. For those nations who have turned their backs on collectivism, such as Russia, there is still plenty of work to be done before they can claim the title of free economies. Global capitalism's foes seem to rail more against a perceived threat than any actual one considering how far we have yet to go before trade is fully liberalized.
Lindsey's exploration of the issues and history behind globalization is masterful and compelling, a tour de force expose of the incalculable damage that something as seemingly esoteric as trade barriers and overweening government intervention have done to the prosperity of humanity. Although global capitalism has a long way to go before economic freedom can declare victory - something Lindsey warns about - the path to global prosperity has gained adherents in nations that only a decade ago trumpeted some of the most grotesque economic policies.
Against the Dead Hand is really two books intertwined into one. It is a sober examination of the fight that the advocates of the free market have faced since the day Smith's The Wealth of Nations first appeared but it is also a celebration of the ethos of capitalism. Lindsey's effort isn't just a call to man the lines against the desperate rearguard actions of a discredited collectivist movement, it's a clarion call urging us to fight for our economic freedom. And it is an impressive one at that.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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