Globalization Protesters Also 'Neo-Colonialists'

By Brad Lega

When Italian police shot Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old protester at the G-8 meeting in Genoa, the usual rhetoric followed.

Police claim he was part of an anarchist mob assaulting a police car while protest groups claim he is just another casualty in the holy war against rich nations and rich corporations to stem the tide of globalization.

But did Giuliani die like Nathan Hale, fighting for the cause of liberty and freedom? Or did he die like a child from the Children's Crusade, the seemingly well-intentioned but confused attempt to capture Jerusalem from the Turks with unarmed 8-year-olds? I think Giuliani died like a crusader. The anti-globalization movement of which he was a part promotes continuous dialogue about the influence of large corporations and the dangers of the WTO and "neo-colonialism."

I respect the devotion of the protesters and their desire to raise living standards in poor countries. But their main lines of argument rely on a condescending, paternalistic view of individuals in poor countries and the choices these individuals make. The ideas and goals of the protest movement deserve the label "neo-colonialist" far more than any treaty or trade organization.

Their first suggestion is that globalization destroys local communities, robbing local producers of their competitiveness and forcing consumers to accept mass-produced, low-cost goods made somewhere else in the world. The communities lose their intrinsically valuable local character as they are absorbed into a homogenizing global blob.

This is the McDonald's argument: McDonald's comes in and drives a cafe with beautifully local food out of business. Who would choose McDonald's over a small French bistro? Anne, get your bulldozer.

As any economics professor will point out, McDonald's wouldn't be there if it couldn't make a profit. And it couldn't make a profit if local people didn't want to eat at McDonald's.

The same local villagers who anti-globalization protesters are trying to save from the horror of shakes and fries are the people patronizing McDonald's. They choose to spend their money on fast food, a clear indication of preference.

The quaintness or "local character" of a community is not a goal that we should all pursue; it is a dynamic conglomeration of the individual choices of community members.

If individuals choose to eat at McDonald's, only a special sort of prescriptive paternalist can decree that this is a bad thing. The same can be said about decisions to wear American clothes or use American cell phones.

In Mexico, the government tried to protect the domestic film industry for years by imposing strict limits on American film distribution. Once they were lifted a few years ago, the influx of movies fueled the construction of huge, American-style suburban Cineplexes. Nothing looks less quaint or more homogenized than a 24-screen Cineplex, to be sure. But the forum and profit incentive they provide directly led to films such as Amores Perros, an immensely profitable film and the first from Mexico to be nominated for an Oscar in 37 years.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu blames a lack of theaters and government control of the industry for that gap. Seen this way, Cineplexes are now a part of the culture of Mexico, not an alien limb grafted on to it.

The same condescending paternalism is part of the argument about labor standards. Anti-globalization forces contend that labor practices in other countries violate human dignity, that no person should be subjected to the working conditions that are common overseas and that everyone should have access to health care through employment, for instance.

They use this idea to argue that all trade agreements should contain provisions to guarantee worker rights in other countries. Labor unions sign on to this position because labor rights necessarily entail higher production costs, negating some of the competitive advantage enjoyed by poor nations with plentiful labor.

But if the crux of the issue is human dignity, then why not respect the choices of the workers themselves? The inhabitants in countries such as India choose to work for employers who provide few of the guarantees found in America. If the workers thought the labor practices were unfair, they wouldn't welcome the new factories and compete aggressively to work in them.

A low regulatory burden spurred significant foreign investment in India, leading to a 4 percent annual growth rate in the 1980s and more rapid expansion in the last decade. Wages have been maintained in the face of population growth that exceeded 2 percent annually.

Respecting the ability of people to make decisions in line with their own best interest acknowledges a greater degree of human dignity than enforcing foreign labor standards or protecting local restaurants. It requires a leap of faith to accept that not everyone shares our own conception of a "just society."

It is hoped the anti-globalization movement will learn to see things this way before we have any more martyrs to the cause.