Fixing up globalisation

Colin James’s unpublished article on Singer”s “One World”

Globalisation is here to stay, so it is time we set it in some ethical standards. So says Peter Singer in a new book to get your synapses in working order for your return to the office.

Singer is an Australian philosopher with a high-prestige “bioethics” university post at Princeton in the United States. His easy-to-read new book, One World: the ethics of globalisation*, is a challenging adjunct to Philippe Legrain’s brilliant Open World: The Truth about Globalisation, reviewed here on November 6.

Legrain focused on economic globalisation. Singer’s globalisation encompasses not just economies but also “the atmosphere”, international relations and law and “the world community”.

Legrain says economic globalisation is good for us but its management needs a lot of improvement to fix up global inequities and distortions: his book is a defence and a critique. Singer turns that round: for him economic globalisation is one facet of a general globalisation that has rapidly made neighbours of us all and we would be wise to start being neighbourly. We are not just a global economy; we are a global community.

“How well we come through the era of globalisation — perhaps whether we come through it at all — will depend on how we respond ethically to the idea that we live in one world,” Singer says. “For the rich nations not to take a global ethical viewpoint has long been seriously morally wrong. Now [in the aftermath of September 11, 2001] it is also, in the long term, a danger to their security.

“Increasingly, we are facing issues that affect the entire planet.”

First on Singer’s list is global warming. He accepts the United Nations’ scientific pronouncement that climate change will cause major environmental, economic and demographic disruption and, if you go along with that premise, his case for the Kyoto protocol is compelling.

Since all people (and countries) share the atmosphere, all individuals have an equal right to it, Singer argues. Rich nations do not have a right (as distinct from the economic might) to go on polluting the atmosphere at the future cost (he alleges) of millions of lives and livelihoods in poor nations. Singer backs the emissions trading regime as an equalising device, though wants credits withheld from corrupt dictators.

Nor, he says, can rich nations demand poor and developing nations curtail their emissions from the outset of the regime. That would embed current inequalities.

It is a short step from that argument to a set of principles supporting a big increase in aid from rich to poor nations to reduce economic inequalities.

And it is not a big step from that chapter to a discussion of the desirability of more international action to curb atrocities within states, based on the notion that a state’s first duty is to protect its citizens. Singer rejects the moral relativism which leads some on the left to oppose intervention by rich and militarily powerful western nations in non-western nations: for him killing and torture are wrong whatever cultural system they occur in.

Singer also rejects the marxist left’s objection to economic globalisation. Appeals to Marx’s economic determinism won’t do as a critique of globalisation, he says. Nor will “endlessly repeated rituals of street theatre”, such as at the Seattle meeting of the the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Nor will unsubstantiable claims of the sort that India’s poor’s food intake halved when India started opening up.

Singer further differentiates himself from the traditional left and the “globaphobes” by refusing to parrot the left’s assertion that globalisation has widened the gap between rich and poor. Scanning recent studies, he finds no conclusive evidence either way — though if he had factored in the finding by Oxfam in a report** in 2002 that if rich nations’ protectionism was reduced enough to lift developing countries’s share of world trade by 5 per cent, 128 million would be lifted out of poverty, that would suggest that well (and ethically) administered economic globalisation would reduce inequalities. Oxfam thinks so.

Welcome to Singer the acceptor of economic globalisation as a matter of fact. What is needed is rational discussion not irrational opposition, principles not prejudice. The “globaphobes” versus “globaphiles” argument is counterproductive.

On this he is more or less in Legrain’s ballpark. Legrain excoriates much of the practice of global economics and points the way to some urgent reforms, such as eliminating protectionist policies which have denied AIDS drugs to poor countries at reasonable cost and eliminating obscene rich-country agricultural subsidies which Oxfam calculates at double total world official aid donations. Both Legrain and Singer think the TRIPs international intellectual property regime heavily favours rich countries.

But Singer is much more challenging than Legrain to supporters of economic globalisation. There is, he thinks, a lot of unethical behaviour which it needs correcting.

Some of his objections don’t stand up. For example, he thinks agricultural support is acceptable to preserve small farming and thus the countryside. In fact the European CAP has led to overfarming, widespread environmental degradation and large agglomerations at small farmers’ expense. Singer is patently not an economist.

But other objections of his are not so easily dismissed. His analysis of the WTO challenges Legrain’s defence.

* Small or poor countries can’t easily defy pressure from rich countries for consensus or pay the price of leaving the WTO if they disagree.

* The “process not product” rule on environmental, health, social and animal welfare standards has been very narrowly interpreted to the detriment of countries imposing high standards (though it is just possible this is now changing).

* The WTO is not democratic — it gives Iceland the same vote as India and, though the rules are subject to ratification in member-country parliaments, the panels and the appellate body which decides trade disputes are not.

So the WTO needs reforming, to even up the balance of advantage between rich and poor nations and allow greater scope to nations to set their own standards (provided, of course, they aren’t non-tariff barriers in disguise).

Why, Singer asks, should it be acceptable without question to ban movies made by killing or exploiting children but not products made by forced child labour? It is not a long step from that to support import bans on meat from animals exported by countries (such as the United States) which refuse to ban steel-jaw traps.

You get a glimpse of the cost of a free trade agreement with the United States.

And you will readily see that Singer thinks the WTO is too narrowly focused on trade and what he calls “neoliberal economic thinking”: “With some signs that the WTO is willing to rethink this [neoliberal] approach, it is possible to imagine a reformed WTO in which the overwhelming commitment to free trade is replaced by a commitment to more fundamental goals,” he says.

“We could in time see the WTO as a platform from which a policy of laissez-faire in global trade is replaced by a more democratically controlled system of regulation that promotes minimum standards for environmental protection, worker safety, union rights and animal welfare.”

Our government would agree. This is what western states have done within their national economies over the past 150 years — and continue to do though they have eased some bindings over the past 15 years.

But Singer goes further. If the WTO cannot respond he wants another world body to set such standards and make them stick. Elsewhere in the book he seeks a more democratic United Nations and a world Parliament.

We can leave him at this point as he takes off for utopia. We and governments are stuck with the real world where Legrain seems more relevant.

Singer’s value will be to bring home to anti-globalists that reform, not opposition, is the more useful focus. Then pro-globalists would need to take the antis more seriously. In making that case, Singer is highly relevant.

* Peter Singer, One World: the Ethics of Globalisation (Text Publishing, Melbourne), 255 pp, $35.99

** Oxfam International, Rigged Rules and Double Standards: trade, globalisation and the fight against poverty, 2002