Globalisation is making everyone richer, but may undermine human happiness. What would a (utilitarian) God suggest?by Robert Wright / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
For all the discord over globalisation, virtually everyone agrees on two of its properties. First, globalisation is hard to stop. Second, globalisation makes the world-on balance, at least-more prosperous. The critique of globalisation isn’t that it fails to churn out ever more stuff, but that churning out more stuff has lots of drawbacks, especially given the way the stuff then gets distributed.
These two properties are related: globalisation is almost unstoppable precisely because it is driven by lots of people hell-bent on increasing their prosperity. Nike shareholders want to boost profits by holding down production costs, which means manufacturing overseas. Indonesian workers want to raise their income by moving from farm fields to Nike factories. Nike customers want, well, they want a shoe that has not just the generic “Air Sole” (old hat) but a “Tuned Air Unit” in the heel and “Zoom Air” in the forefoot.
Human nature itself-the deep desire to amass resources, to keep up with the Joneses, and, if possible, to leave them in the dust-drives the engine that is transforming the world. Unfortunately, human nature has a spotty record in the driver’s seat. Humanity is famous for pursuing things, such as power and riches, that don’t bring lasting happiness. Are those Nike shareholders happier behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz SUV than they would be driving a Hyundai Accent? Might some Indonesian factory workers be better off if they had never left the farm? Couldn’t a weekend athlete find contentment without Zoom Air in the forefoot?
This is the $64,000 question: does globalisation bring happiness? It is seldom addressed, perhaps because of its presumed elusiveness. But psychologists have amassed a lot of data about what does and doesn’t make people happy. Several big cross-cultural surveys over the past two decades are beginning to make it clearer which economic and political circumstances lead people to feel satisfied with their lot. Combine this data with what we know about globalisation’s economic and political effects, and it is possible to take a preliminary shot at the big questions: Is globalisation good or bad? If you were God (and a utilitarian), would you adopt a hands-off policy, leaving global capitalism on autopilot, or would you intervene? And what form might intervention take?
Psychologists have asked people in dozens of nations, rich and poor, how satisfied they are with their lives. The results are provocative. There is a clear…