Behind the Great Wall


Washington. -- Among the threats to the North American Free Trade Agreement is a change in the political culture described by Clive Crook, deputy editor of The Economist. Writing in the issue celebrating 150 years of that journal, he says capitalism is afflicted by a "contradiction" quite unlike the chimeric contradictions Marx imagined.

Social change and economic growth are linked. But developed democratic societies are deeply ambivalent, fearing change almost as much as they desire rapid growth -- 2 percent annually, doubling output in 35 years, may be insufficient to fund welfare-state entitlements for aging populations.

Democratic governments are held responsible, Mr. Crook notes, for any process that produces casualties, as economic dynamism invariably does. Furthermore, as capitalism makes nations increasingly wealthy, those nations become decreasingly tolerant of the discomforts of change. They crave stability. Therefore, the coming of capitalism to underdeveloped countries, by generating competitive pressures on developed nations, diminishes those nations' support for liberal trade policies.

Chris Patten, governor of Hong Kong, writing in the same edition of The Economist, issues a relevant warning:

"A Martian visitor traveling from the mud and disease of Tudor London via the tepee settlements of North America to the Ming mandarinate of 16th-century Beijing would have guessed without millisecond's hesitation that China would lead the world for centuries to come. Where Europe was made up of warring cities and domains, China had an efficient government to preside over a sprawling but united country. China knew the power of the pen and the sword; it had invented both printing and gunpowder. It had invented the compass, too, and had sent a huge navy half way around the world. No one could touch China for plenitude of civilized living; no one could match its inventiveness and industrial might. But it did not work out like that. The Martian got it wrong. The Middle Kingdom retreated behind its great wall, and history told a different tale."

Protectionists, frightened by a Mexican economy one-twentieth the size of ours, and anxious to cower behind tariff walls, should study history's stories of vanished supremacies.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad