For the past several centuries, the world has experienced a sequence of intellectual revolutions against oppression of one sort or another. These revolutions operate in the minds of humans and are spread — eventually to most of the world — not by war (which tends to involve multiple causes), but by language and communications technology. Ultimately, the ideas they advance — unlike the causes of war — become noncontroversial.
I think the next such revolution, likely sometime in the 21st century, will challenge the economic implications of the nation-state. It will focus on the injustice that follows from the fact that, entirely by chance, some are born in poor countries and others in rich countries. As more people work for multinational firms and meet and get to know more people from other countries, our sense of justice is being affected.
This is hardly unprecedented. In his book 1688: The First Modern Revolution, the historian Steven Pincus argues convincingly that the so-called “Glorious Revolution” is best thought of not in terms of the overthrow of a Catholic king by parliamentarians in England, but as the beginning of a worldwide revolution in justice.
Do not think battlefields. Think, instead, of the coffeehouses with free, shared newspapers that became popular around then — places for complex communications. Even as it happened, the Glorious Revolution clearly marked the beginning of a worldwide appreciation of the legitimacy of groups that do not share the “ideological unity” demanded by a strong king.
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, a huge bestseller in the Thirteen Colonies when it was published in January 1776, marked another such revolution, which was not identical with the Revolutionary War against Britain that began later that year (and had multiple causes).
The reach of Common Sense is immeasurable, because it was not just sold, but was also read aloud at churches and meetings. The idea that hereditary monarchs were somehow spiritually superior to the rest of us was decisively rejected. Most of the world today, including Britain, agrees.
The same could be said of the gradual abolition of slavery, which was mostly achieved not by war, but by an emerging popular recognition of its cruelty and injustice. The 1848 uprisings around Europe were substantially a protest against voting laws that limited voting to only a minority of men: property holders or aristocrats. Women’s suffrage followed soon after. In the 20th and 21st centuries, we have seen civil rights extended to racial and sexual minorities.
All of the past “justice revolutions” have stemmed from improved communications. Oppression thrives on distance, on not actually meeting or seeing the oppressed.
The next revolution will not abolish the consequences of place of birth, but the privileges of nationhood will be tempered. While the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment around the world today seems to point in the opposite direction, the sense of injustice will be amplified as communications continue to grow. Ultimately, recognition of wrong will wreak big changes.
For now, this recognition still faces strong competition from patriotic impulses, rooted in a social contract among nationals who have paid taxes over the years or performed military service to build or defend what they saw as exclusively theirs.
Allowing unlimited immigration would seem to violate this contract.
However, the most important steps to address birthplace injustice probably will not target immigration. Instead, they will focus on fostering economic freedom.
In 1948, Paul Samuelson’s “factor-price equalization theorem” lucidly showed that under conditions of unlimited free trade without transportation costs (and with other idealized assumptions), market forces would equalize the prices of all factors of production, including the wage rate for any standardized kind of labor, around the world.
In a perfect world, people do not have to move to another country to get a higher wage. Ultimately, they need only be able to participate in producing output that is sold internationally.
As technology reduces the cost of transportation and communications to near the vanishing point, achieving this equalization is increasingly feasible.
However, getting there requires removing old barriers and preventing the erection of new ones.
Recent free-trade agreements under discussion, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, have suffered setbacks as interest groups attempt to bend them to their own aims. However, ultimately, we need — and probably will get — even better such agreements.
To achieve factor-price equalization, people need a stable base for a real lifetime career connected to a country in which they do not physically reside. We also need to protect the losers to foreign trade in our existing nation-states.
Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) traces its roots in the US back to 1974. Canada experimented in 1995 with an Earnings Supplement Project. The European Globalization Adjustment Fund, started in 2006, has a tiny annual budget of ￡150 million pounds (US$194.7 million). US President Barack Obama has proposed to expand the TAA program. However, so far, this has meant little more than experiments or proposals.
Ultimately, the next revolution will likely stem from daily interactions on computer monitors with foreigners whom we can see are intelligent, decent people — people who happen, through no choice of their own, to be living in poverty.
This should lead to better trade agreements, which presuppose the eventual development of orders of magnitude and more social insurance to protect people within a country during the transition to a more just global economy.
Robert Shiller, a 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, is a professor of economics at Yale University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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