Monday, August 01, 2005

Globalization and Getting Along

Tribal conflict – religious, ethnic, linguistic – dominates the headlines. Predictions of the end of history, especially this aspect of it, have proven premature to date. The old divisions that have forever sundered humankind are with us still, having foiled the Marxist prediction of communism as the remaker of man as new man, free of tribal passions and jealousies, motivated only by the common good. Like most Marxist renditions of the future, this one collapsed in a heap of democide and economic failure, with unreconstructed man left to go on butchering the other in Yugoslavia, Chechnya and elsewhere.

So what about globalization? The idea of increased transnational commercial ties as a soother of trans-tribal conflict is not new. A rapid expansion of trade and foreign investment has been argued to knit nations together, and give them incentives to barter more and slaughter less. Unfortunately, the peak of these trends, and those predictions, occurred in an earlier wave of globalization which crested just prior to 1914, whereupon subsequent events falsified them spectacularly.

But that was a question of war between states, and I am more interested in the possibility that commerce promotes peace not just among nations but among different tribal groups, perhaps even within the same nation. Every nation has its tribal conflicts. The variety of ethnicities and religions in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and France is already dizzying. But other European countries have their own at best partially assimilated minorities, India has its castes, religions and ethnicities, and China has a huge variety of tiny tribes (Tibetans, most famously) hard up against its 90%-plus Han majority.

Is tribal (meaning ethnic and religious) fratricide a permanent part of the human condition? Certainly there is reason to be pessimistic. Sociobiologists such as Jared Diamond have argued that we are genetically prone to violence, and it is not hard to marry that literature with the extensive literature from cognitive psychology purporting to show ingrained suspicion of different tribal groups to posit a permanent propensity for intertribal warfare.

But even sociobiologists do not generally sign on to complete genetic determinism. Rather, the principles of genetic biology set, via the evolution of the brain as outlined by cognitive psychology, the range of biologically feasible behavior. Anthropology and economics help us understand how the individual is guided within those parameters. This means that institutional structure is important – no institution, whether democracy, years of multicultural training, or a legal code emphasizing the rule of law is guaranteed to make us get along. But they can help.

And so too with commerce. Greater opportunities for exchange should, other things equal, make it more costly for people to engage in tribal conflict, because it will disrupt beneficial intertribal trade. There is an opposing natural economic tendency toward intratribal trade, because the marginal cost of such trade is often lower owing to previous investments in language and cultural capital. One reason it is easier for a Korean businessman in Los Angeles to look to other Koreans when he needs a loan or when he is looking to make a deal is not because of any innate clannishness that Koreans (or any other community) might have but because the ability to exchange information in one’s native language and against one’s cultural background is higher – more value can be created with less effort, other things equal, than when transacting across tribal lines.

But higher costs of intertribal trade have to be weighed against higher benefits. Networking with the larger global community means access to resources, microeconomic knowledge and opportunities that are not available when one trades only with one’s own. And so globalization – the systematic decline of barriers to trading across great distances, including cultural distance – can serve to lower conflict both across and within states.

On the other hand, globalization represents cultural free trade, in that people are exposed to cultural products (music videos, say) and practices (marrying without parental arrangement, e.g.) from all over the world. Those who benefit from the existing cultural order – those who own scarce cultural factors in cultural autarky – can be expected to (even violently) resist cultural competition. This is probably why intellectuals, especially those sheltered from competition, and clerics rank so highly among anti-globalization activists. These segments of society can be expected to punish individuals who consume other cultural products and practices, both individually and, when they control it, through the state. If a particular ethnic group dominates the government, we would be surprised if that group’s members would embrace freer economic and cultural engagement with the outside world. If a suppressed minority group demands it, intertribal conflict should follow. And not just for a moment. Ordinary economic protectionism lasts a long time – witness American sugar subsidies and textile tariffs – and cultural protectionism is probably no different.

But ultimately this latter effect is short-term, and the aforementioned gains to wider trading networks are long-term. Thus, the most likely outcome is short-term turbulence, including ethnic and religious conflict as a result of improved transportation and communications technology, followed ultimately by less (but certainly not zero!) tribal conflict owing to the further penetration of modern commerce into regions of the world hitherto sealed off from it.


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