Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat.

Reading between the lines.
April 18 2005 3:30 PM

The Incredible Shrinking Planet

What liberals can learn from Thomas Friedman's new book.

Tom Friedman Is Right Again, Dammit!
Tom Friedman

What do you call it when multinational corporations scan the world for cheap labor, find poor people in developing nations, and pay them a fraction of America's minimum wage? A common answer on the left is "exploitation." For Thomas Friedman the answer is "collaboration"—or "empowering individuals in the developing world as never before." Friedman has written another destined-to-be-a-best-seller, destined-to-annoy-many-leftists-even-though-he's-a-liberal book, The World Is Flat.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

Readers of Friedman's 1998 The Lexus and the OliveTree may ask: Why another best-selling, left-annoying Friedman book on globalization? Friedman argues that in the last few years, while we were distracted by Osama Bin Laden's transformation of the political landscape, a whole new phase of globalization was taking shape. Fueled by Internet-friendly software and cheap fiber optics, it features the fine-grained and far-flung division of data-related labor, often with little need for hierarchical, centralized control; and it subjects yesterday's powerhouses to competition from upstarts. "Globalization 3.0 is shrinking the world from a size small to a size tiny and flattening the playing field at the same time," bringing a "newfound power for individuals to collaborate and compete globally."

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This theme will get the book read in business class, but the reason leftists back in coach should read it has more to do with Osama Bin Laden's transformation of the political landscape. Islamist terrorism has been a godsend to the American right, especially in foreign policy. President Bush has sold a Manichaean master narrative that fuses neoconservativism with paleoconservative hawkism, the unifying upshot being the importance of invading countries and of disregarding, if not subverting, multilateral institutions.

If the left is to develop a rival narrative, it will have to honestly address the realities of both globalization and terrorism. Friedman's book portrays both acutely—but that's not the only reason it's essential reading for the people it will most aggravate. It also contains the ingredients of a powerful liberal narrative, one that harnesses the logic of globalization to counter Bush's rhetoric in foreign and, for that matter, domestic policy.

Part of this narrative Friedman develops, and part of it he leaves undeveloped and might even reject as too far left. But so what? In a flat world, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnists don't hand down stone tablets from mountaintops. They just start conversations that ripple through webzines and into the decentralized, newly influential blogosphere. It's kind of like open-source software, one of Friedman's examples of how easily divisions of digital labor can arise: Friedman writes some Friedman code, and left-of-Friedman liberals write some left-of-Friedman code, and eventually an open-source liberal narrative may coalesce. Feel empowered? Let's get cracking!

These days hardly anyone accepts the label "anti-globalization." Most leftists now grant that you can't stop the globalization juggernaut; the best you can do is guide it. Friedman's less grim view suggests that, if you look at things from the standpoint of humanity as a whole—a standpoint many leftists purport to hold—globalization may actually be a good thing.

He shows us some of globalization's beneficiaries—such as Indians who take "accent neutralization" classes and who, so far as I can tell, are as decent and worthy as the American airline reservation clerks and tech-support workers whose jobs they're taking (and who seem to prefer "exploitation" to nonexploitation). What's more, even as some Americans are losing, other Americans are winning, via cheaper airline tickets, more tech support, whatever. So, with net gains outweighing net losses, it's a non-zero-sum game, with a positive-sum outcome—a good thing on balance, at least from a global moral standpoint. (I've argued that this is the basic story of history: Technological evolution allows the playing of more complex, more far-flung non-zero-sum games, and political structures adapt to this impetus.)

Even globalization's downsides—such as displaced American workers—can have an upside for liberals in political terms. A churning workforce strengthens the case for the kind of safety net that Democrats champion and Republicans resist. (Globalization-induced jitters may help explain why President Bush's plan to make Social Security less secure hasn't captured the nation's imagination.) Friedman outlines an agenda of "compassionate flatism" that includes portable, subsidized health care, wage insurance, and subsidies for college and vocational school. You can argue about the details, and you can push them to the left. (He notes that corporations like to put offices and factories in countries with universal health care.) But this is clearly a Democratic agenda, and, as more and more white-collar jobs move abroad, its appeal to traditionally Republican voters should grow.

Globalization's domestic disruptions can also be softened by global institutions. As the sociologist Douglas Massey argues in his just-published liberal manifesto Return of the L Word, the World Trade Organization, though reviled on the far left as a capitalist tool, could, with American leadership, use its clout to enforce labor standards abroad that are already embraced by the U.N.'s toothless International Labor Organization. For example: the right of workers everywhere to bargain collectively. (Workers of the world unite.)

Friedman doesn't emphasize this sort of leftish global governance. Apparently he thinks Globalization 3.0 will enervate international institutions as much as national ones. The WTO will "become less important" because globalization will "be increasingly driven by the individuals who understand the flat world."