Banality and ills of economic liberals

Banality and ills of economic liberals

As the world has been turning almost upside down with the rise of authoritarian regimes, all sorts of ethnic, regional, religious, sectarian conflicts and overall violence, mainstream economic liberals still seem adamant about their thesis of economic development as the cure. 

Since the end of the Cold War, those pseudo-optimists have been claiming that the market economy would save the planet. Although global affairs have proven that view is totally wrong and most of them have had to slightly modify their views, some still seem to remain confident. This is what I thought when I read another revolting article by Thomas L. Friedman (New York Times, Sept. 6).

Friedman suggests that while Asians have become “crazy rich,” Middle Easterners have failed to do so because they have been unable to put their history behind them and have failed to achieve “prosperity.” He claims Asians have “learned to set differences aside and focus on building the real foundations of sustainable wealth; education, trade, infrastructure, human capital and in the most successful places, the rule of law.”

I wonder, where are those dream lands, aside from tiny international market centers like Singapore? China is a giant economy but only at the expense of modern slavery and terrible authoritarian rule, let alone a democratic rule of law. As India’s economy is considered a success story, which has produced a set of those “crazy rich people,” millions of people live in poverty and do not even have access to clean water, let alone reasonable infrastructure and education. Besides, India is being ruled by one of those new autocrats with a terrible record of human rights and democracy. If we are talking about Japan, it is an old and rare example of successful industrialization with a troubled history.

Friedman’s hopeful example of Saudi Arabia for the salvation of the Middle East is even more curious. He admits that democracy is not on the agenda in Saudi Arabia, but he thinks the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing social, economic and religious reform is hopeful. In fact, the prince may correctly be qualified as a crazy rich Middle Eastern, but I am not sure how his reforms will transform his country, which is lagging behind the “cursed” Iran, not only in terms of human capital, but also in terms of political freedoms.

Could it be that Saudi Arabia is viewed as a hopeful country, despite its major shortcomings, only because it is a loyal U.S. ally? And could it be that Middle Eastern countries are suffering from all sorts of conflicts also because they have always been an arena for proxy wars by the United States and other contesting powers rather than historical grievances?

It is an old, bad and Orientalist view that views the Middle East as the land of blood and revenge, as if political and military conflicts are only derived from religious, ethnic and sectarian divisions. It is not only because the of the banality of economic liberal views, which leads them to underestimate the role of political reasons, but it is more about their effort to portray the problems of non-Western countries as the result of irrational internal forces and cover the impacts of global and regional power games.

No wonder conspiracy theories are so popular in the Middle East, although it is a false kind of revolt against efforts of fooling like Friedman’s. Indeed it is a “false” kind of revolt, since conspiracy theories are another way for people in this region to fool themselves by searching for mysterious machinations of evil powers. Whereas the real evil to be found is not beyond ordinary power relations, Middle Easterners are eager to define it along religious, sectarian and ethnic lines among themselves and in terms of eternal enmity between the East and West or Islam and the West or in terms of Zionist plots.