Matthew Yglesias really, really doesn’t like me. He’s come after me again on his blog, attacking me for being a graduate of Groton and Yale and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and yet presuming to know what populism is. Please, Mr. Yglesias; I may not quite measure up to your severe standards as a horny-handed son of toil, but the large domestic staff here at the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens assures me that I understand their aspirations very well. Just this morning the butler brought in the coffee and freshly ironed newspapers and I asked him whether Yglesias’ attack was unfair.
“Absolutely, sir,” he said. “Preposterous. Highly unfair. Will you be needing the Bentley this morning?”
So there, Matt.
But actually I’m here to praise Mr. Yglesias today, not to bury him. He’s got an excellent post up that refers to the extraordinary reduction in world poverty that we’ve seen in the last thirty years. Here’s how he starts:
Amidst all these problems in the United States, it’s worth recalling that for much of the world these are actually the best of times:
World poverty is falling. Between 1970 and 2006, the global poverty rate has been cut by nearly three quarters. The percentage of the world population living on less than $1 a day (in PPP-adjusted 2000 dollars) went from 26.8% in 1970 to 5.4% in 2006 (Figure 1).
Let’s put this another way: in the last forty years the global poverty rate has fallen farther and faster than ever before. More than a billion of the world’s poorest people have begun to escape degrading and destructive poverty. Much more needs to happen, of course, but from the standpoint of justice and solidarity we should welcome the progress already achieved and do everything possible to support the continued progress of the world’s poorest people towards better, richer lives.
Up until this point, Mr. Yglesias and I are as one. We join hands with Jeeves, Mrs. Beaton the housekeeper, James the chauffeur and even the groundskeepers and the scullery maids at Mead manor to sing the Internationale (click here to link to several versions in MP3 files) and hail the bright new day.
It’s all very thrilling, but there’s a problem: if the western left had its way, much of this progress would never have happened. Without globalization, the export of manufacturing jobs to the third world and the development of multinational, risk taking giant financial firms by greedy bankers, this rise in world living standards would be much, much lower than it has been. All these are trends that most of the left hates, but they are necessary if the world is going to achieve what the left most wants — a more just global order that in particular is more fair to the poor.
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair understood this; that is why history is going to look past their flaws and their errors and recognize them as genuinely constructive figures on the world stage. But the true believers never accepted the Third Way; now they hope that to dismantle the ideas and the policies that under both left and right governments have facilitated a generation of earth shaking change. Blair and Clinton would, I think, have done a good job if they had still been in office when the financial crisis hit. They would have seen the need to reform a system that had gotten out of hand — but they would have understood the fierce moral imperative to preserve the dynamism that the new system was creating around the world.
I don’t know how Matthew Yglesias will ultimately reconcile his commendable concern for the world’s poor with the ‘progressive’ left’s attachment to economic and social policies that would condemn generations unborn to endless misery and want. This is a problem that the American left as a whole has struggled with for decades. It is not a simple issue: economic policies that improve living standards abroad tend to increase inequality at home. Giving workers and entrepreneurs in poor countries more opportunities to compete with their counterparts in the rich world puts Americans and Europeans under some new and often very unwelcome competitive pressures. I share many of the concerns of Yglesias and others on the left about the social and political consequences of these shifts in the rich world and agree with them both that there are no easy answers and that the interests of the less affluent in the advanced countries can’t be simply ignored even as we strain every sinew to reduce poverty abroad.
But the center of moral gravity in world politics has decisively moved from the cause of greater equality in the rich countries to that of greater opportunity in the poor ones. No serious person can ignore this, I think; the problem is particularly difficult for people on the social democratic left in rich countries. The political base of those movements (organized labor in particular) has a set of interests that can be difficult to reconcile with those of the world’s struggling poor, but the ideology of the left, and commendably so, is committed to global solidarity with the poor. Up to this point, the western democratic left has not found an answer to this problem; until it does, it is likely to face an uphill struggle in many countries as its moral instincts are in a state of permanent tension with its electoral base.
Still, all credit to Matthew Yglesias for hailing what so many leftists attempt to ignore: the gigantic progress the world has made in reducing poverty as globalization, like John Brown, marches on to free the slaves.