The Borders of Freedom

In a world of disappearing and permeable borders, are we really more free? Is the "globalized" world flat or just a slippery slope? A sociologist, a human geographer, a historian, and a political scientist weigh in.

By Mary Shafer

GoldmanMichael.jpg
On the street near where Michael Goldman lived in Bangalore, India, the shops are nestled next to each other like links in a chain. There's the banana market next to the hair shop, then the tailor's place, then the little store that sells televisions. On a given afternoon, you can find an entrepreneurial family in front of these shops making its own living, earning a few rupees by playing music or performing on a makeshift tightrope.

Bangalore is a city of seven million, and if you look at it from the long-distance view of World Bank reports, it is a city on the move, a resounding global-world success story. And that view would be
accurate. Sort of.

“It's a half-truth," says Goldman, a professor of sociology who lived in Bangalore last year and has written about the economic inequities generated by World Bank projects. “The World Bank is lending millions to agencies to turn Bangalore into a world class city. The idea is that this fights poverty as the entrepreneurial spirit catches on."

In Goldman's view, however, one of the ripples generated by World Bank loans has been the displacement of neighborhoods like this one, where an entrepreneur is not a technocrat with start-up capital, but rather a son who has lived here since birth and is now carrying on his family's tradition in banana-market retail. When information technology consultants move in and revitalize the neighborhood to the benefit of their particular corporation, these old friends and neighbors, who are connected neither educationally nor digitally to the globe's movers and shakers, must go, well, somewhere else.

“If you could just view the world of Indian innovation, then you would see a flat world," says Goldman. “But that is an elite little sliver of the world, a sliver that has always been flat."

The Global Village: Redux
The idea of a “global village"—a term coined by Marshal McLuhan—has its roots in the work of Friedrich von Hayek, the 20th-century economist and political philosopher who laid the foundation for what came to be known as “neoliberalism." Hayek believed that the inter­national market would naturally balance itself if goods, services, and resources were allowed to move freely among nations as companies sought to maximize productivity and efficiency. To that end, he believed, countries needed to remove barriers such as tariffs and restrictions on capital flow and investment.

SheppardEric.jpg“Globalization really took off in the '80s," says Eric Sheppard, a geography professor who has studied neoliberalism. “This was the switch point to the view that we should allow markets, ideas, and labor to move freely on an international scale. The model of globalization was open markets and open borders. It was predicted to be a rising tide that would lift all boats."

The tide rose further and more quickly as the century turned. With it came the potential for international computer collapse generated by the digital calendar rollover dubbed Y2K, and the appeal of consultants who could forestall the dreaded meltdown.

“Countries imagined a crisis," Goldman says. “We didn't know if there would be one, but we thought there might be, and Indian entrepreneurs went to Silicon Valley and said, ‘You charge $30 an hour for IT consultants; we'll charge $15 an hour to go in and fix the problem for Y2K and we'll keep $13 and pay $2 to our engineers.' It was a substantial savings to Silicon Valley. And it was then that companies began bypassing the American market to hire Indians to do the job."

It was a free-market capitalist's dream. People could move around as freely and cheaply as did goods and information, and it helped make the corporation, rather than the nation state, the driver of commerce. But it didn't do much to eliminate economic gaps within countries.

“This idea of a totally free, boundary-less market is really a set of ideas about openness, driven by an imaginary view of how the world should be," says Sheppard. But, he says, “that is only one perspective. This is mine: To the extent that globalization has reduced state independence, you've allowed capitalism to create inequalities."

Haves and have-nots
As the corporate tide has risen, large populations remain caught on the bottom, displaced by or unable to participate in this free world. While we now take for granted that boundaries of all kinds are dissolving—geographic, economic, cultural, informational—it seems that this view is at best superficial, according to several University scholars—including Sheppard and Goldman—who study the issue.

RothmanAlex.jpgIf anything, the barriers that separate places like the small Bangalore neighborhood from the enclaves of gleaming high-tech companies in other parts of the same city have become denser.

Statistically, says Goldman, the deep divide looks like this: Since 1990, the differential between the top fifth and the bottom fifth of the income ladder has increased exponentially. In Bangalore, for example, the differential between the wealthiest fifth and the poorest fifth of the population was 5:1 in 1990; today, it's 20:1.

“That's dramatically different," he says. “Societies don't go through this without some kind of crisis. The irony is that the wealth is generated, but it is allowed to sit in just one sector of society. There is no public responsibility. Producing for the global economy has tremendous costs. For every condo complex you build, you displace a neighborhood. Wealth produces wealth, but it's not an innocent process. It
displaces people and has the opposite effect."

“The actual data tell us that," agrees Sheppard. “Since the 1970s, economic inequalities have increased, not only, say, between Africa and the West, but within and between nations as well. So there's a real sense that this is not working. Even those who have imagined a boundary-less world are willing to countenance boundaries because they see it's not working. In my view, it hasn't worked because the whole model is built on the theory that markets can work if we allow free competition. That's not a persuasive theory."

Creating boundaries
Ironically, it has sometimes been government itself—which is more or less in the business of creating regulations—that has in fact contributed to the problem by removing them, says Goldman.

“Technology firms thrive because governments put money into them, give them land, and charge few taxes," says Goldman. “Governments actually create the conditions in which these firms can thrive. The mantra in India was ‘Roll back the state!' What really happened was the state rolled out the red carpet.

“You simply can't ever have a completely unleashed economy," he adds. “It's never existed. Here are these corporations demanding world-class facilities like a monorail and an airport and putting very
little back into the city. Government has lost the authority to rein in these corporations. So the world could be flattened if civil society could say to the corporations, ‘Now you have to pay back somehow."

Governments may not be likely to do that, but Goldman's analysis suggests that our “boundary-less" world is a reality only for some, particularly for corporations whose vast reach extends far beyond their homeland headquarters. So it's fair to say that permeable boundaries haven't provided much freedom to those who are stuck on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. In fact, it may be that permeable boundaries don't provide much freedom at all, that in fact, we may be more likely to fear than to embrace the free flow of people and capital, at least when certain walls come down.

“There are boundaries drawn on a map, and there are others that leave no geographical imprint," says Sheppard. “There is a fundamental conflict between the idea of the global village and the threats that people see or imagine. So although people promote the idea, we have real discomfort about, say, undocumented immigrants or actually living next door to an African/Muslim. We open the door, but only a crack."

Choosing safety
It is no longer a surprise to hear that free trade has contributed to an enormous economic divide between those who buy the goods and those who make them, or that the economic playing field is anything but level. What might be more surprising are the product safety implications of the global free market.

“The place where the world is flat is at the corporate level," says Barbara Welke, professor of history and law, who has studied commerce and consumer safety. “Corporations have the mobility and a huge investment in the notion of a flat world."

WelkeBarb.jpgWhile activists have protested globalization's cost to those who make our low-cost goods, perhaps nothing has stirred consumer consciousness quite like recent revelations that Chinese imports included toys with lead paint, chemical-laced toothpaste, and poisonous pet food. Everyone took the reports seriously: U.S. manufacturers recalled millions of products, and China itself went so far as to
execute the former head of its food and drug administration for dereliction of duty.

Suddenly, the freedom to buy inexpensive imported products ran headlong into the expectation that these products would also be safe. To ensure that, we need more, not fewer controls.

“The whole notion of our wanting products that meet certain standards is a constraint on the market," says Sheppard. “It seems appropriate to set standards, but every time you do that, it's a barrier to trade."

“The contradictions are all around us," Welke adds. “People are terrified of lead paint, but the outcry is rooted in something deeper. You don't, for example, have the same kind of outcry about lead paint in buildings in poor U.S. neighborhoods as you have about toys coming from China."

This precarious balance between freedom and risk changes over time as well. Safety itself is an expectation that has developed over time, Welke says, until we have come to think of it as a right.

“Safety began being advertised as a value in products as early as the late nineteenth century," she says, “with safety lamps for burning kerosene and safety-pins and safety bikes in the early twentieth
century. Later on in the century, the government passed legislation regulating safety standards for food and drugs, highway traffic, and clean air and water.

“But legislation is worthless without enforcement, and we've been on a downhill path in that regard since the Republican ascendancy of the 1980s and the message that government should get off our backs."

There's something else at work here, as well, and it has to do with Sheppard's suggestion that we sometimes erect barriers in our imaginations to replace the old ones that have been torn down.

“More stories suggest that some of these hazards are the result of failure on the part of American companies," he says. “Nevertheless, we blame the Chinese. This is a great example of our conflict between wanting freedom from boundaries and our desire to impose them. We say, ‘Let's engage in unrestricted trade with China.' Then, China explodes and one reason for that is its exports to us. We see China as a coming place, and at one level, we're scared. ‘Oops,' we say, ‘we thought we'd still retain our prominence."

Border patrol
It may make good sense to create borders and restrictions in a globalized world. Some of the barriers we erect, though—real or imaginary—may in fact be based less on sound judgment than on the disquieting anxiety of the times.

In the last decade, immigration has become one of the country's most contentious issues, pervading the presidential campaign and generating strong voter anger on both sides. It's an issue that has come to the fore periodically in the country's history, in a way that underscores the confluence of factors that makes it so prominent now, says David Samuels, a political science professor who has studied these issues extensively.

“In my view, this is really a debate generated by fear," he says. “People who are afraid—for their jobs, whatever—coalesce around issues aimed at immigrants. When you add fear of terrorism to the mix, you've got a situation where politicians connect terrorism to the failure to patrol borders. Anti-terrorism groups make the case that [9/11 leader] Muhammad Atta was illegal. People play off the possibility of terrorist attack. So we have to clamp down on migrants in general. We want to build walls and put guards there."

Meanwhile, says Samuels, NAFTA and economic globalization have created conditions in which the flow of both goods and people is easier. “Increased immigration is correlated with increased flow of goods, legal and illegal," he adds, “and controlling the flow of people contradicts our stated policy intentions of increasing the flow of goods and services. We do not know how to deal with that policy contradiction."

Clearly, there are legitimate arguments for regulating the flow of immigrants. Once again, though, we run headlong into the challenge of balancing freedom with risk. How much freedom are we willing to curtail to secure our safety?

“Israel is successful at keeping people out, sort of," says Samuels. “Do we want to be like Israel? And how much do we want to affect our economy? The US economy is a job magnet and would collapse if we sent everyone home. We need people on the low end of the wage scale. Whatever the solution, you and I would not have lettuce to eat without immigrants."

In the end, the contradictions between freedom and risk remain, as do the contradictions between the concept of a global village and the reality that many people are not citizens of that village. No matter what we say, we do seem to want our walls.

“The flat world myth assumes on the one hand that all flows are good, while on the other hand it fears certain flows, such as poor immigrants or China's advance, or Islam's spread," says Goldman. “So there is an implicit acknowledgement that the world really isn't flat. We need to collectively decide how to regulate, manage, and craft economies, borders, and social relations with certain overt goals in mind—like ensuring people's access to sustainable livelihoods, health care, safe products and foods, and fair rules—rather than follow one ideological frame, such as unleashed markets, that refuses to acknowledge the social inequalities and injustices that flow from it.

“Or put simply, how do we globalize justice and fairness in the workings of the economy?"

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This page contains a single entry by CLA Reach Magazine published on April 9, 2008 10:07 AM.

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