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What Not to Do

Earlier this morning I was a guest, via Skype, on a show that was recorded and will be released on YouTube. The advertised title of this discussion was “Peak globalization,” which I took be a heading for discussing whether or not the COVID-19 calamity is a good reason for rethinking globalization. I write here, deeply embarrassed, to explain what a defender of free markets should not do in such a situation: don’t do what I did, namely, lose cool and storm away.

Here, if you are interested, is the sorry account.

I discovered, when I called in to Skype, that I was one of three guests. One of the other guests was a woman in London (whose name I don’t recall – Joti, perhaps?). She is head of an outfit called, I think, the British Workers’ Party. The other guest was Richard Wolff, a famous American socialist economist. The American host, Peter, described himself as conservative.

Both of the other guests were confident that today’s crisis exposes the “contradictions of capitalism” and will finally awaken oppressed workers in the U.S. and U.K. to the realization that they – ordinary men and women – have been roundly oppressed and horribly exploited by capitalism. Several times Marx was favorably mentioned. To listen to both of these other guests one would conclude that since the rise of capitalism, capitalism has made ordinary people poorer and poorer and only a slender layer of capitalists richer and richer.

When I asked “How do you explain that the living standards of ordinary people have risen so spectacularly over the past 200 years in capitalist countries – in countries whose markets were freest?” – Wolff responded, with contempt visibly dripping from his lips, by accusing me of giving capitalism credit for the achievements of government.

The “highlight” (meaning, nadir) of this regrettable event came when the woman in London singled out the following as countries whose responses to COVID-19 deserve praise: China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea. I kid you not.

Peter, the host, did register his objection to those countries’ violations of civil liberties – but then we paused briefly for a scheduled break. After the pause I expressed surprise at hearing praise for Cuba and North Korea. Wolff immediately – visibly agitated, angry, and condemnatory – accused me of being unable to escape a “cold-war mindset.” (!) My “cold-war mindset” prevents me from seeing, or admitting to, all the good that has been achieved in countries such as Cuba.

Literally, I was speechless. So that’s the first thing not to do: be speechless. (I thought, of course, of the standard reply: ‘Why don’t you, then, Prof. Wolff, move to Cuba?’ But I judged this response to be too pat, cheap, predictable, and, hence, lame. I just sat there, staring at my computer screen and at Wolff’s angry face.

By this point, I was almost 30 minutes into this torture when Peter, the host, finally brought the subject around to the one that I’d prepared for and believed the show would be devoted to: globalization. Peter (perfectly legitimately) asked me if the COVID-19 experience doesn’t imply that we Americans should produce all of our medical supplies ourselves.

I responded with an analogy that I stole from my Mercatus Center colleague Dan Griswold (and which will appear later today at Cafe Hayek as a “Bonus Quotation of the Day”): America’s experience with the coronavirus no more implies that we should abandon globalization than does a power outage at your home imply that you should remove yourself from the electricity grid.

Peter shot back that the analogy is inappropriate. When I attempted to defend it by summarizing studies on the relationship between trade-openness and health, Peter kept talking. He wouldn’t, at least for a few seconds that seemed an eternity, let me speak. After some time – 20 seconds perhaps (but I’m not sure; by this time my mind is reeling) – I said “I’m leaving. Goodbye.” I then – rattled, frustrated, angry, and above all deeply depressed at the state of the world – logged off of Skype.

I add, perhaps defensively, that the original scheduled time for taping was 25 minutes, although at the start of the taping Peter asked if we’d all be willing to go for about 35 minutes. We all agreed to do so. I stormed off at the 30-minute mark.
I write the above to come clean about my failure. I’m ashamed of myself. It’s not only that Milton Friedman and Walter Williams, the greatest of the greats in such situations, would have acted in exactly the opposite way. It’s that even quotidian defenders of liberalism would have acted better than I did.

I abandoned my post. Far from courageously and ably defending markets and liberalism and openness, my actions have weakened respect for all that I hold dear. My only consolation is that I’m a minor player in the drama of defending markets and liberalism against the countless varieties of barbarism and ignorance that oppose it – and so relatively few people will notice and care.

I am – I repeat – sincerely sorry, deeply embarrassed, and very much ashamed of myself.