The year in global populism

Bret Stephens:

Leo Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Among the lessons of 2016 is that, politically speaking, Tolstoy was wrong.

This was the year in which everything that couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t happen, happened. In May, Filipinos elected a man who said he’d be happy to slaughter millions of drug addicts the way Hitler slaughtered millions of Jews. In June, the British tossed out the European Union, along with the toffs who had told them to stay in it. In October, Colombians rejected a deal with the FARC for which their president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A month later: President-elect Donald Trump.

Now Italians have overwhelmingly rejected proposed constitutional changes that were supposed to make their political system functional and economic reform possible. Beppe Grillo, the populist politician who led the charge against the changes, crowed on his blog Sunday that “times have changed.” Yes, they have.

What happened? In 2014,Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts, published a book extolling the International Monetary Fund and other institutions of “economic global governance” for putting out the fires of the 2008 financial crisis. The global economy had been teetering on the brink of another Great Depression, but it didn’t fall in. Ergo, success.

The book was called The System Worked. Except it didn’t. The system did more to mask problems than it did to solve them.

Government statistics can show a drop in the unemployment rate, but they give scant indication of whether the jobs available now have the status or pay of the jobs available previously. Giving unlimited credit to a panicked patient will always have a narcotic effect; it can also have an addictive one. Near-zero (or sub-zero) interest rates will goose stock markets to the delight of sophisticated investors—and the dismay of savers. Bank bailouts may make “systemic” sense. But they divorce behavior from consequence. Pushing economic management from elected officials into the hands of unelected central bankers and regulators flatters the vanity of the intelligentsia while offending the normal person’s sense that his vote should count toward his own livelihood.

In other words, the “system,” with its high-toned rationale and its high-handed maneuvers, struck millions of people as unaccountable and unjust. It might have been a good thing that the sky didn’t fall on everybody, but shouldn’t it at least have fallen on somebody? Bernie Sanders got remarkably close to winning the Democratic nomination by calling Wall Street a fraud and demanding prosecutions. Hillary Clinton lost the White House by so perfectly typifying the system that supposedly worked so well. Donald Trump is what he is, and readers know what I think of that. But Mrs. Clinton’s unforgivable sin was her outsized—and unearned—sense of entitlement.

Look again at this year’s other big political surprises.

Colombians rejected the peace deal because they would not abide having terrorists lightly let off for their crimes. Filipinos electedRodrigo Duterte because they wanted to exact moral justice against drug dealers, never mind the finer details of legal justice. Britons disregarded dire warnings about the consequences of leaving the EU because the powers of Brussels violated their sense of democratic sovereignty. Italians told Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to shove off because they weren’t sympathetic to plans they see as having been made in Berlin for the benefit of Germans.

The populist wave now cresting across much of the world is sometimes described as a revolt against globalization: immigrants failing to assimilate the values of their hosts, poorer countries drawing jobs from richer ones, and so on. But the root complaint is not about economics. It’s about justice. Why does the banker get the bailout while the merchant goes bankrupt? Why does the illegal immigrant get to jump the citizenship queue? What right does a foreign judge have to tell us what punishments our criminals deserve? Why do our soldiers risk their lives for the defense of wealthy allies?

Those of us who believe in the liberal international order (now derisively called “globalism”) ought to think about this. There are powerful academic arguments to be made for the superiority of free trade over mercantilism, or of Pax Americana over America First. But liberalism’s champions will continue to lose the argument until we learn to make our case not in the language of what works, but of what’s right.


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