Hoover Daily Report

Globalization versus Imperialism

Monday, February 11, 2002

Globalization, some say, is a form of imperialism. Along with the supposed invasiveness of American culture—via Hollywood movies, McDonald hamburgers, and Coca Cola products—globalization is seen by some as the equivalent of international aggression.

A similar charge was made some years ago at a United Nations conference in Vienna; representatives of some nondemocratic nations complained that the idea of human rights was intrusive and imperialistic and thus threatened the sovereignty of their countries. Some serious political thinkers still object to the very notion of universal ethical and political principles, as if human beings as such didn't share some basic attributes that imply certain guidelines for how they should live.

To charge that globalization is imperialistic is like claiming that liberating slaves imposes a particular lifestyle on the former slaves. Globalization, in its principled application, frees trade. Barriers are removed and restraint on trade is abolished, both the opposite of any kind of imposed imperialism.

The idea that economic principles are culturally relative confuses highly variable human practices with ones that are uniform across all borders. The production and exchange of goods and services are universal. The political contingencies of various societies, born often of power, not reason, distort such universality by imposing arbitrary impediments. Slavery, the subjugation of women, and the prohibition of wealth transfer from parents to offspring are examples of conditions not natural to human life—rather they are artifacts of ideologies.

American intellectuals often fail to appreciate the country's goal of establishing a political ideal for human beings in general, not for blacks, whites, women, Catholics, or Muslims. This ideal, when exported, is the farthest thing from imperialism. It is, in fact, the closest we have ever come to bona fide human liberation (a term inappropriately adopted by Marxists who mean to impose a one-size-fits-all regime).

Globalization has thus not been effectively linked with what is at its heart, namely, human liberation. Because some schemes have been mislabeled as cases of "globalization," the genuine article has tended to acquire a bad reputation. But those are exceptions. To globalize has been to spread freedom, particularly in commerce but also in politics and civil life.

Genuine globalization should be supported not only because it is economically prudent but also because it is consistent with a basic human aspiration to be free. This is no threat to cultural diversity, religious pluralism, or the great variety of benign human differences with which globalization can happily coexist.

Only those who wish to impose their particular lifestyle on the rest of us would fear globalization and the spread of human freedom.