11 July 2016

Who will stand up for cosmopolitanism?

By Dalibor Rohac

There seems to be an emerging consensus on the center-right that an excess of cosmopolitanism is at least partly to blame for the wave of populism that is sweeping across politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

For Ross Douthat at New York Times, a cosmopolitan worldview just a “powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.” My colleague at AEI, Tim Carney, sees Brexit as a victory of nationalist tribalism over its equally closed-minded cosmopolitan version. And Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle writes that “it’s not clear that transnationalism is any more capable of tempering its own excesses than the nationalism that preceded it.”

The argument is not new. At a meeting of the free-market Mont Pèlerin Society two years ago, one of its senior members complained bitterly about “cosmopolitan, selfish individuals ‘floating’ at the surface and searching for short-term pleasures and advantages – without roots and responsibility” and suggested that the world needed instead “responsible citizens anchored in domestic realities.”

I beg to differ. To the extent to which the current wave of populism maps into a conflict over national versus transnational identity (Dan Drezner is unconvinced), the problem is not an excess of cosmopolitanism but rather its absence, especially on the conservative, free-market right.

Lionel Robbins, who was at the foundation of the Mont Pèlerin Society as the intellectual home of the free-enterprise movement, called nationalism “the nauseating backwash of historical mysticism and geographical particularism which is threatening to destroy our common culture.”

Ludwig von Mises, another of the Society’s founding members characterized his own political outlook as “cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. [Classical] Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.”

The cosmopolitanism of the founding fathers of the free-market movement was not an abstraction, but reflected their own lives. Mises, born in Lviv, first moved from Austria to Switzerland in the 1930s and then, at the age of 59, to the United States. Friedrich von Hayek spent most of his academic life outside of his native Austria – in London, Chicago, and Freiburg.

Classical liberals understood that a cosmopolitan intellectual outlook was necessary to make the case for economic openness and peaceful cooperation between countries. Yet the likes of Robbins and Mises were no utopians – they did not seek to replace national identities by some globalist Davos kumbayah. Rather, they argued that no conflict existed between the welfare and individual rights of people outside of one’s country and the interests of one’s own nation. As Mises writes, one “has just as much of an interest in the prosperity of the whole world as he has in the blooming and flourishing of the local community in which he lives.”

None of this is to suggest that the current backlash against globalization, immigration, or the European Union is not driven by a number of legitimate grievances. Support for nationalist parties tends to increase in the aftermath of financial crises. In the United States, the economic fallout of the Great Recession is further compounded by the low – and dramatically falling – rates of labor participation among working-age men. Because of the rising returns to human capital and the inadequacy of our educational institutions, not everybody benefits equally from the wealth created by the West’s globalized, open economies.

Moreover, the rise of anti-immigration movements across the West reflects concerns – again, not entirely unreasonable – about the security risks that chaotic inflows of asylum-seekers and migrants from conflict zones might present.

The center-right critics of the ‘Davos Consensus’ have a point when they say that we have yet to see convincing answers to the question of how to make globalization work for people without skills, ambitions, or youthful energy needed to create a start-up. And, as long as the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa continue brewing, the fear of Islamist terrorism will not go away, either. Worse yet, instead of providing such answers to the prospective voters of Donald Trump or UKIP, our cognitive elites are becoming increasingly insulated from Western societies, economically, ideologically, and sociologically – as another AEI scholar, Charles Murray, argues in his tour de force, Coming Apart.

But, whatever one’s take on these problems, none of them can be solved by reversing globalization. By and large, more restrictive immigration policies, let alone a wall on the Southern border of the United States, would make everyone poorer. Nor will angry supporters of Donald Trump, Brexit, or Marine Le Pen be helped by trade wars – or by a dismantling of the painstakingly built political infrastructure that is keeping Europe economically integrated, democratic, and peaceful.

Instead of scaling it back, solving the West’s current malaise will require doubling down on globalization and economic openness, accompanied by reforms of our educational institutions and labor markets, and by foreign and security policies that do not turn their back to conflicts and tyranny in our neighborhoods.

For that, cosmopolitanism needs a fresh restatement, different from the stale conventional wisdom of Davos. As many times before, classical liberals, conservatives, and libertarians can play an important role in providing such a restatement, very much in the spirit of the Mont Pèlerin’s founders. But for that, they should steer clear of the temptations of nationalism, which has been behind so much war, protectionism, and human misery.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @daliborrohac.