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Globalization’s Assassin

The world’s first wave of economic globalization, led by the British Empire in the nineteenth century, came to an end literally with a bang on a Sunday afternoon in 1914, when Gavrilo Princip killed (with two uncannily well-aimed bullets) Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The years that followed witnessed pan-European carnage, instability throughout the 1920’s, and the rise of fascism and communism, culminating in the death of countless millions during World War II.

Is today’s globalizing era also coming to an end? If so, it may not necessarily end with a repeat of the slaughters of the last century, but with an economic retrenchment that brings economic stagnation and consigns billions of people to grinding poverty.

Various candidates have been proposed for the role of globalization’s assassin. But one little noticed, yet likely, aspirant has been sneaking up on the world economy: the growing tendency to limit the free circulation of people, to “fence in” the rich world. We see the menace of this tendency constantly nowadays, but we perceive it in such a seemingly unthreatening way that we may well become accustomed to it rather than arresting it.

Globalization means free movement of capital, goods, technology, ideas, and, yes, people. Any globalization that is limited to the first three or four freedoms but omits the last one is partial and not sustainable. As soon as people cannot move, there will be little to stop governments from limiting the free movement of goods or other factors of production. After all, if over-populated countries with high unemployment cannot export people, why not reach for higher tariff barriers to protect the jobs they have?