What protesters don't get

Posted: Feb 14, 2002 12:00 AM
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a column criticizing anti-globalization protestors as a bunch of kids "with open-toed shoes and closed minds." Ever since, I've been deluged with angry e-mails, mostly from college kids, calling me a "racist," a "corporate stooge," an "ignorant and insensitive jerk" and a -- shudder -- "Republican." (Of course, to these kids, "Republican" is just shorthand for "racist, corporate stooge" so they're really just repeating themselves.) Their basic objection, it seems, is that I just don't "get it." OK, so let's establish what "it" is. One angry fellow suggested that I dismiss protestors because I am in the pay of some nefarious multinational corporation (as is, apparently, the rest of the dismissive media). He explained, "The basic purpose of these protests is to abolish international banking institutions and large corporations that do more to prevent democracy than to promote it. These institutions believe in a monarch-like, profit-over-people, closed-door decision making, which only fulfills the greed of corporate executives and wealth-seeking shareholders." Of course, this is just one guy, but having read quite a bit of the anti-globalization movement's literature, it's a pretty good starting point. His letter's one oversight is that it doesn't mention the environment or sweatshops and child labor explicitly, but let's just stipulate that all that stuff is implied. So, first of all, let me say I do get it. And, let me also say, this is childish bunk. For example, if multinational corporations threaten democracy, how come the number of democracies grew simultaneously with the rise of the multinational corporation? It's hard to pinpoint an exact date for when the "multinational corporation" or "globalization" began, but over the last 30 years we've been told that democracy is increasingly threatened by these diabolical forces. The funny thing is, the number of democracies has been rising, with occasional fluctuations, pretty much nonstop. According to Freedom House, the widely revered nonpartisan human rights monitor, the 20th century was "Democracy's Century." According to a study by the same name (you can find it at http://www.freedomhouse.org/reports/century.html), in 1900, there were no countries "which could be judged as electoral democracies by the standard of universal suffrage for competitive multiparty elections." There were 25 countries, the United States among them, with restricted democratic practices, accounting for 12.4 percent of the world's population. By mid-century, "there were 22 democracies accounting for 31 percent of the world population," according to the study. Another 21 states had the basics of a democratic system, accounting for 11.9 percent of the world's population. Since then, remember, horrible multinational corporations have exploded and "undemocratic" international banking schemes have flourished. Nevertheless, Freedom House reports that "electoral democracies now represent 120 of the 192 existing countries and constitute 62.5 percent of the world's population." Moreover, the pace of change increased the most as the United States signed things like GATT, the WTO, NAFTA and all those evil unaccountable monstrosities. From the end of the 1980s to the year 2000, the number of democracies nearly doubled. Now, there is a difference between democracy and freedom. Some of these nations may have elections, but the rule of law may not have been fully established yet (a point Freedom House insists on making). And there is certainly much work to be done around the globe. However, it is impossible to deny that democracy has marched in near lockstep with the spread of trade, capitalism and, yes, the multinational corporation. This only makes sense for a number of reasons. I'll give you two: contracts and the middle class. Corporations, it's true, do not much care about democracy. But they care passionately about contracts. Unfree nations are notorious for breaking their word. Communist and authoritarian regimes have a bad habit of seizing the assets of foreign companies. Understandably, this scares away foreign investment -- and encourages those few corporations willing to deal with a corrupt nation to get in and get out as quickly as possible, which tends to be bad for the environment, the people and just about everybody but the corrupt rulers. Agreements like NAFTA and the WTO force nations to respect contracts, which encourages responsible investment and, hence, economic growth. And, you see, economic growth creates a middle class, and a middle class, eventually, demands democracy. That is the story of the 20th century and, God willing, it will be the story of the 21st. Prosperity brings with it a certain logic of social organization. Without exception, the wealthier a society becomes, particularly after industrialization, the more likely it will be to protect its environment (America's is considerably better than it was 100 years ago), the health of its people (life expectancy continues to soar) and, most importantly, the rights of its people. I "get" what the college kids are saying just fine. I just wish they got that what they're saying is that they want the world to be poorer, more polluted and less democratic.