02 February 2005

Markets and tyranny

The New York Times has a provocative op-ed from Robert Wright. He argues that market capitalism is corrosive to tyrannical government.

Capitalism's pre-eminence as a wealth generator means that every tyrant has to either embrace free markets or fall slowly into economic oblivion; but for markets to work, citizens need access to information technology and the freedom to use it - and that means having political power.

Well, while I do have some discontent with market capitalism for a host of reasons, and see this a bit of an oversimplification, this is still pretty much true. Which leads Wright to a counterintuitive conclusion.

The president said last week that military force isn't the principal lever he would use to punish tyrants. But that mainly leaves economic levers, like sanctions and exclusion from the World Trade Organization. Given that involvement in the larger capitalist world is time-release poison for tyranny, impeding this involvement is an odd way to aid history's march toward freedom. Four decades of economic isolation have transformed Fidel Castro from a young, fiery dictator into an old, fiery dictator.

Economic exclusion is especially perverse in cases where inclusion could work as a carrot. Suppose, for example, that a malignant authoritarian regime was developing nuclear weapons and you might stop it by offering membership in the W.T.O. It's a twofer — you draw tyrants into a web of commerce that will ultimately spell their doom, and they pay for the privilege by disarming.

I dunno: I have to think about that. But it's a seductive idea. Certainly it leads Wright to articulate well a big chunk of my thinking about American foreign policy:

In the wake of John Kerry's defeat, Democrats have been searching for a new foreign policy vision. But Mr. Clinton laid down as solid a template for post-9/11 policy as you could expect from a pre-9/11 president.

First, fight the spread of weapons of mass destruction, which means, among other things, making arms inspections innovatively intrusive, as in the landmark Chemical Weapons Convention that President Clinton signed (and that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et. al., opposed). Second, pursue terrorist networks overtly and covertly (something Mr. Clinton did more aggressively than the pre-9/11 Bush administration). Third, make America liked and respected abroad (as opposed to, say, loathed and reviled). Fourth, seek lasting peace in the Middle East (something Mr. Bush keeps putting off until after the next war)

So check it out, if you like that sort of thing.

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