I used to think global capitalism would lead to world peace. This was not back when I was a (very) Young Republican, nor was it, obviously, when I joined the antiwar movement in the late 1960s and dabbled in the teachings of Chairman Mao.
It was during the Clinton presidency. I'd been a free-market liberal for decades. I was getting confused as to what liberals actually stood for. Clinton was, too. It had been 10 years since Reagan claimed victory over the Soviets.
In spite of (and maybe because of) the Cold War ending, the United States was entering a period of economic decline. Russia, China and just about every other formerly communist nation except Cuba joined us in embracing free enterprise.
This was supposed to lead to a glorious rising of all boats. But it didn't. World demand for U.S. goods began shrinking instead, as other countries took their fair share of profits and jobs. Our president was so flummoxed by the effects of global capitalism on our standard of living, which had been the world's highest for so long we'd come to think of it as our birthright, that he allowed some bad things to happen that we're paying for dearly today.
Clinton made the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) vulnerable to oil drilling and did nothing to slow the auto industry's disastrous detour from low-mileage vehicles to gas-guzzling SUVs. It was on Clinton's watch that the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed, paving the way for the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Clinton was also a passionate supporter of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that lowered trade barriers between the U.S. and Mexico.
While people like me and Clinton and other NAFTA supporters assumed that global peace would be the inevitable consequence of nations becoming economically interdependent, a GOP presidential candidate at the time named Pat Buchanan was appalled. He thought NAFTA would cost American jobs. He was half-right in his prognostication. What cost American jobs wasn't NAFTA per se, but global capitalism.
Who knew that unfettered free trade would cause a different kind of unrest and violence in the world than anything we'd seen before? What Buchanan may or may not have seen coming back when I and most other political moderates were blinkered was that global capitalism would lead to an ever-widening income disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
Instead of nation-on-nation wars, we have terrorism: the 9/11 attacks, chaos in Syria (and the rest of the Middle East) and the Taliban rebounding in Afghanistan.
Why this was inevitable is because capitalism was never intended to take the place of government. In lieu of any form of structured planning and laws (tariffs, taxes, environmental and workplace regulations, etc.) to protect ordinary people and the planet itself from no-holds-barred economic growth, what capitalism, which is appropriately agnostic on these matters, would bring about would be the swift decline in any sort of political power over anything.
Libertarians think (or pretend to) that a world without government would be a wonderful thing. They fail to take into account that without government the forces of unfettered global capitalism will do what they always do until some sort of political force stands in its way, just as the Western political democracies powers did when fascism threatened the world. The capitalists will consolidate their power. They will form conglomerates. They will stifle competition. They will enslave workers. They will run roughshod over the environment.
I'm not condemning global capitalism when I say this. I'm still very much for capitalism, but I see a system of checks and balances as the only way that its "animal spirits" can be harnessed as a force for good. When I was a teenager, capitalists didn't expect business to solve all the world's problems.
My dad was a businessman and a Republican. Much as he disliked Democrats, he understood instinctively, having lived through the Depression, that the best way to cope with unions wasn't to eliminate them but to be a tough negotiator.
Likewise, he accepted as common sense that just because he fought hard against Democrats during election years, the things they stood for -- the rights of ordinary voters and workers, and the equality of those less fortunate than him -- were not intrinsically evil.
As the world increasingly allows the exigencies of global capitalism to hold sway over governmental authority (by, for example, lowering trade barriers that were intended to protect the health of self-sufficient communities from the Wal-Marts and other conglomerates with no allegiance to place), the hope that global capitalism will bring world peace will fade as quickly as the hope that common sense will save our otherwise defenseless environment from the effects of climate change.
Bonnie Blodgett is a St. Paul writer. She blogs about gardening, politics and life at bonnieblodgett.com.