Our windbag Vice-Regal
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 February 2004)

There's nothing in the world so grand that John Ralston Saul can't look down on it. With the wave of a vice-regal hand, His Excellency (as he styles himself on the Web site of his wife, the Governor General) dismisses the petty problems that engage lesser minds. Saul can answer, without apparent effort, questions that frustrate historians, economists, and others toiling in the vineyards of thought. Saul sees the Big Picture. His manner implies a unique grasp of world events.

Unfortunately, he delivers his opinions in a way that's at once pompous and close to meaningless. It's often hard to know what he's saying.

It's even harder, sometimes, to know whether he's saying anything at all.

In the March issue of Harper's, writing on "The Collapse of Globalism," he begins with a wondrously overconfident sentence, so brief and so lacking in nuance that at first glance it resembles a revelation accepted for centuries. "Grand economic theories," he writes, "rarely last more than a few decades." He acknowledges that some endure for half a century, but little short of military force will keep them alive any longer.

What in the world is he on about? Karl Marx's economic theory made its debut in the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. Fifty years later it became the basis of an empire that lasted seven decades. Saul rightly notes that for the last 45 years armies were needed to maintain it in Central Europe. Even so, Marxism ran a lot longer than "a few decades," however you calculate it. Perhaps that's why Saul put "rarely" in that sentence, to cover Marxism. But there aren't many grand economic theories on offer, and once you start setting them aside, for one reason or another, the proposition loses whatever value it might have had.

Adam Smith also presents a bit of a problem. The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, outlines a system that has been in use ever since. Smith advocated free enterprise and free trade, and even if Saul persuades us to abandon both of those theories immediately, Smith will still have maintained his place near the top of the charts for more than two and a quarter centuries. He was also the first to describe the division of manufacturing into separate operations performed by different workers, a system that was little known when he theorized about it and has since become universal.

If you think about it a little, the opening of Saul's article, striking though it seems, turns out to be no more than a vague stab at profundity, at best a quarter-truth. But give it this much: It accurately represents the thinking that follows.

Which grand economic theory has lasted only "a few decades"? Saul has just one to tell us about, the one he calls globalism. It appears he has invented a rule with a single application. And we have only Saul's word that globalism is dying, to be discarded by (as his subtitle says) "the rebirth of nationalism."

When Saul says "globalism" he doesn't mean what you might expect.

He's not discussing internationally linked financial markets, and he shows no interest in the Internet, e-business, or CNN. Nor is he dealing with "outsourcing," the spreading of the rich world's manufacturing and service industries to poor countries, which is currently the subject of demagogic argument in the U.S. election campaign.

To Saul, globalism means mainly big corporations, the International Monetary Fund, and trade agreements he dislikes. He explains that in some countries, such as Argentina and Malaysia, the regulatory efforts of international bureaucrats have failed. Some governments are angry and recent trade talks have stalled. Moreover, world-wide conglomerates don't always prove efficient or honest. He sees deregulation as another failure, the airlines being the worst example.

Saul picks a fact here and a fact there, reworks them according to an invisible calculus of his own, and concludes that the movement toward global integration has halted and gone into reverse. Nationalism is rising again.

To reach this point Saul uses debating tricks of dubious merit.

Many writers set up a straw man for rhetorical destruction. Saul recruits an army of straw men, then mows them down without mercy. He describes many promises that, he claims, were made in support of globalism. For instance, "That freed markets would quickly establish natural international balances, impervious to the old boom-and-bust cycles" and "global economics would produce stability through the creation of ever large corporations impervious to bankruptcy." But who made such outlandish claims? Saul doesn't say. Surely no sane economist predicted the elimination of business cycles or the prevention of bankruptcy. Most economists consider business cycles routine and regard bankruptcy as a natural (and often beneficial) element in the business world. Here Saul propagates a kind of retroactive fantasy. Only those without memories will accept his vapid theorizing.

After piling up a few dozen unsorted facts, some related and some not, some illustrative of world trends and some not, Saul finally says: "What this might mean remains painfully unclear." A rare case of an author providing the perfect critique of his own work.

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