Bad Samaritans

It’s possible to read a great deal that is critical about globalisation – or more precisely, globalisation as it is currently carried out. Much of this writing though centres on things like poor working conditions, environmental concerns or things of that nature. The reply to that by people who embrace neo-liberal economic orthodoxy (i.e.: free-trade, montarism, deregulation, privatisation, et cetera) is that, yes, working conditions will be rotten and inequality will be rampant in the short term, but in the long term things will be fine, after all, we in the developed world once had sweatshops too.

This is where Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans comes in. Chang’s thesis is that neo-liberal orthodoxy (as pushed by the WTO, IMF, and World Bank) is not only cruel, it doesn’t actually work. In a nutshell his argument is that countries in the developed world are free traders because they are economically prosperous and not that they are economically prosperous because they are free traders. Chang is a Cambridge economics prof and he lays out how every economic “miracle” country starting with the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries and continuing to China today was the result of careful state intervention, tariffs, and lack of respect for intellectual property – all things that are said to be deadly to developing economies today.

Chang is not anti-trade or some kind of luddite, he readily acknowledges that his own country – South Korea built itself on exports – but on its own terms in a way that neo-liberal international institutions insist is not feasible. This is to say that this is a very lucid critique of a particular set of policies that hold sway in many international institutions. It is not an indictment of free markets but of those that have an unlimited faith in the wonder-working power of free markets.