Monday, September 23, 2013

The nonsense of the 'global race'

Andy Beckett has a good article in today's Guardian on the inexorable rise of the concept of the 'global race':
Rushed into use shortly after the 2012 Olympics, by a party whose key figures went to expensive schools that fetishise sport and general competitiveness, "the global race" is hardly the most subtle or socially sensitive of rhetorical devices. But it has the advantage of flexibility. Britain, the Tories tell us, needs to "win" it, "succeed" in it, and get "to the top" in it; "compete" in it, "thrive in" it, and be "strong" in it; "fight" in it; or merely, "equip" itself for it and "get fit for" it. If Britain fails to do some or all of these things, it will "sink", "lose", "fall behind", be left in "the slow lane", or let "others take over". 
This race, we are told, is economic. Our opponents are usually specified: the rising countries of Asia and South America such as China, India and Brazil. Yet the prize is vaguely and promiscuously defined: "jobs", "wealth", "growth", "trade", "talent", "technology", "skills", "capital", "competitiveness", "big ideas", "influence", "innovation", "investment", "investment opportunities", "recovery". 
Meanwhile the race is invoked to justify seemingly any government goal or policy: bigger British arms sales abroad and smaller school holidays; tighter immigration controls and looser planning laws; the lavish high-speed rail project HS2 and a leaner Whitehall; harder GCSEs and better childcare; reducing social security and reforming the European Union; promoting the renewable energy industry and the redevelopment of Battersea power station; even dignifying Cameron's recent visit to Kazakhstan.
Beckett quotes Philip Booth of the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs casting doubt on the concept:
"Economists don't think of trade as a race in any way," says Booth. "The world economy is not a zero-sum game. Countries get richer together. If China carries on reforming and growing, there will be more opportunities there for Britain." Reich agrees: "The race needn't [mean that] every country's citizens lose ground, but some lose more than others … or [that] some can gain only at the expense of others … We can all grow, and at the same time spread prosperity to more people."
The global race is not really a free-market concept at all - those who think it is should study the idea of comparative advantage. Its closest relative is the idea of national efficiency, which flourished before the First World War and, thanks to a similar looseness, could justify anything from socialised medicine to eugenics.

No comments: