Reviewing Bad Samaritans
|Book: Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: Bloomsbury Press
Bad Samaritans – The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism. Ha-Joon Chang. Bloomsbury Press,
Every now and then a ‘prize’ of a book comes along that includes all the elements of good writing. Bad Samaritans is one of them. Using straightforward language that generally avoids using the lexicon of economists, and explains it well when it is used, Ha-Joon Chang writes a strong narrative about the ills of the capitalist world. It is a combination of anecdotal history and comparative history that uses many good statistical elements to support his common sense arguments. Most chapters begin with an interesting anecdotal tale that illustrates the theme of that chapter, and all chapters end with an effective summary of his arguments. His title is most appropriate as he readily supports his position that free trade is a myth, and a realistic presentation of the history of capitalism demonstrates the reality behind the myth.
The main underlying position that demolishes the myth of capitalist free trade and its supposed successes with globalization is that all the current wealthy countries achieved their wealth not through free trade, but through the use of highly protective tariffs and effective use of subsidies and laws that regulated foreign business within their own country. He starts with his own country,
According to the neo-liberal economists – the supporters and apologists for free trade capitalism –
Chang then starts his journey around the globe. Along the way, he exposes this double standard, as well as debunking myths about democracy as an accompaniment to free trade and economic development, and also eliminates culture as a reason for success or lack thereof, and corruption as an excuse for failure. Using per capita income as his measure, rather then the neoliberals’ cherished GDP figures, he journeys through Hong Kong, Africa (with its “damning indictment of the neoliberal orthodoxy”), on to Taiwan, Singapore, China, India and Chile to sum up that “the truth of post-1945 globalization is almost the polar opposite of official history…peddled in order to mask the failure of neo-liberal policies.”
From these leading examples and conclusions it is easy to further the argument that free trade is not working because it forces developing countries to eliminate the very same protective barriers that the rich countries used to gain their wealth.
At this point the reader also needs to consider the tendencies of “full spectrum dominance” both militarily and economically as an imperial tendency of the
The arguments against free trade then become more specific concerning different aspects of the arguments. First, the regulation of foreign investment is considered, with the prime example being Nokia in
Looking more specifically at private versus public enterprise, and again journeying around the world via
The next focus is on intellectual ‘rights’, the idea of borrowing ideas. Once again, historical examples show that the rich countries previously copied much information and technological information while denying protection to foreign ideas in order to create their own wealth. Simply put, if the neoliberals truly believed in promoting development they would make it easier to acquire the information needed to do so rather than prevent its acquisition.
Democracy’s relationship with economic prosperity takes a strong hit, with a discussion of corruption and its various forms (bribery, employment, voting). Chang, using examples from
In fact, “The Bad Samaritans have recommended policies that actively seek to undermine democracy in developing countries,” with a corollary that “it is unlikely democracy will promote economic development through promoting the free market.” In other words, given a democratic choice, the people of the world would choose something other than the ‘free market’ as envisioned and dictated by the wealthy neoliberal supporters of the world. Chang provides two strong examples of re-directing government spending away from military spending to education, health, or infrastructure development, or promoting economic growth through creating a welfare state (which supports working mothers, children, education, hospitals, retirement and all those other nasty socialist ideas that the people of the world want but the neoliberals say hinder development). It all depends on your definition of development – more GDP for the transnational corporations, or more security and safety for the general populace.
Chang’s final conclusion is that if the neoliberals truly believed in creating economic wealth and development within the developing world, it would be in their best interest to “accept those ‘heretical’ policies.” While Chang holds out hope for changing the minds of neoliberals, I cannot be as optimistic, as the cumulative entrenched interests would require a strong midcourse correction from some major event – a catastrophic war, a major financial downturn….hmmm.
I would hope that peaceful persuasion as per Chang would succeed, but the state of the world today does not hold hope for optimism on this front. The rhetoric of free trade continues, while the wars to back it up and the unequal and oppressive regulations to control it continue to defy its very basic premise of freedom and democracy.
A wonderfully accessible work, Bad Samaritans should be read by anyone and everyone paying any attention to either national or global political affairs. Those wishing to refute free trade have a readily accessible volume. Those supporting “The Myth of Free Trade” had better take a second look at how their own wealth developed…if they did not already know the “Secret History of Capitalism.” An excellent work, it should become a cornerstone of the discussion moving forward to a more democratic and equal world.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The