Davos’ false dichotomies


I’m a globalist, you are a globalist, everyone’s a globalist (the term I don’t particularly rate, since like “neo-conservative” in the last decade, it has become a little more than an all-purpose term of abuse):

Maybe populist political movements don’t have as much support as often presumed.

The global public favours cooperation between nations, thinks immigration is a good thing and believes climate scientists, according to a poll of 10,000 people in every region of the world.

The poll was commissioned by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and will be discussed at panels at this year’s meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

People in South-east Asia and Africa were the strongest believers in countries working together, with 88 per cent saying it’s extremely or very important.

The least enthusiastic region was Western Europe, where 61 per cent held that view. In North America, the figure was 70 per cent. Worldwide, it was 76 per cent.

A global majority of 57 per cent said immigrants were “mostly good” for their new country, but only 40 per cent of Eastern Europeans thought so. Despite the continuing stand-off in the United States over building a wall along the Mexican border, 66 per cent of North Americans had a positive view of migrants.

One theme where there’s less optimism is social mobility, with only 20 per cent of Western Europeans and 34 per cent of Americans saying it is common to be born poor and become rich.

Across the world, 54 per cent have trust in climate scientists. But in North America, only 17 per cent do.

Populist political movements might or might not have as much support as often presumed – and it’s clear that the Davos crowd sincerely hope it’s the latter – but contrary to the media reporting above or the WEF’s own spin, you won’t learn much either way from this poll.

Yes, “globalism” is overall quite popular around the world, but there is a clear (though not uniform and consistent) divide between the developed world and the rest, with the rest being more positive, probably because the rest is on the rise and sees itself as a clear beneficiary, whereas the situation in the more mature economies is more ambiguous – the impact of globalisation mixed while the standards of living stagnate.

Secondly, the polling sets up a contrast of “globalism” with rather extreme positions that don’t actually accurately reflect the concerns people do have about the direction of their societies and economies.

For instance, majorities everywhere but for Eastern and Western Europe agree that “new immigrants are mostly good for [my] country” – including 66 per cent in North America. But there are different types of immigration: humanitarian and economic, legal and illegal, high and low, and so on. There are few people who would want zero immigration, but that does not mean that a great majority conversely supports an “open borders” free-for-all. Most people in the developed world, which is the preferred immigration destination, want migration that is legal, orderly and in the national interest, i.e. of a kind that benefits their country socially and economically and does not impose too onerous costs. To argue in favour of such policies is not populism or anti-globalisation – until not so long ago it used to be a matter of common sense. The situation is of course different throughout the developing world, which exports rather than imports people; needless to say people of Africa or South Asia would love to see a borderless world since it gives them more opportunities to go where life is easier and more rewarding.

Similarly, there are majorities in all regions of the world that agree their country “has a responsibility to help other countries in the world”. For most of the world, perhaps, this is a hypothetical question, since they would be the net beneficiaries of help by other (usually richer) countries. But even in the developed world this is a rather loaded question. No one wants to be a “hermit kingdom” like North Korea, not even the North Korean themselves if anyone could ask them and if they could answer truthfully and without fear. Again, there are different types and degrees of help. Most people, I imagine, recognise a humanitarian need to assist victims of catastrophic national disasters; far fewer would agree that helping should entail an unrestricted entry for all “the wretched of the Earth” or a significantly higher foreign aid expenditure (seeing there is preciously little evidence that aid actually helps anyone but the aid industry intermediaries and the local elites).

And when asked “Generally speaking, do you think that all countries can improve at the same time or that if some countries improve others must become worse off?” even larger majorities agree with the former. Again, this tells us little. All countries can and often do, but not always and not in the same ways or at the same rates.

It’s easy to get the results you want when you posit nice motherhood statements against straw men (or is it straw people these days).