Sign up to receive The Commons posts in your inbox.

What Conservative Critics of Globalization Miss

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

It is hard, nay impossible, to find a more sophisticated conservative critique of globalization than that articulated by Oren Cass. Perhaps because Cass was once a card-carrying member of the economic establishment himself, he has an exceptionally clear sense of some of the problematic assumptions that have underpinned that establishment’s high level of support for globalization over the past three decades.

Many, including the current administration, would agree with much of Cass’s diagnosis. There is now a broad consensus that globalization has had a devastating impact on American manufacturing communities, that it has primarily benefited the owners of capital instead of American workers, and that the United States needs new economic policy tools to address the challenge of China’s rise.

We do not wish to quibble with Cass’s critique but instead seek to place it in conversation with other critical narratives about globalization that we explore in our book, Six Faces of Globalization. Cass styles his contribution largely as a conservative answer to the traditional establishment narrative, but what if we imagine him in dialogue with critics coming from other perspectives? Our aim in doing so is to highlight some of the analytical and normative choices embedded in Cass’s perspective, which may in turn affect possibilities for alliances across diverse perspectives on particular policy choices.

Notwithstanding the broad consensus that now exists on the perils of globalization, there are aspects of Cass’s framing that mark his critique as coming from the right-of-center. First is the lack of concern for the wellbeing of people outside of the United States. The establishment narrative proudly points to the fact that integration into the global economy helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in developing countries. For Cass, the effect of U.S. policies on the livelihoods of people in developing countries is something that might be of concern to a “benevolent global dictator” but should not factor into the calculations of U.S. politicians. In his account, working-class solidarity does not reach beyond American shores.

This focus contrasts sharply with some left-wing critiques of globalization. As the journalist William Greider has argued, the “only plausible way that citizens can defend themselves and their nation against the forces of globalization is to link their own interests cooperatively with the interests of other peoples in other nations—that is, with the foreigners who are competitors for the jobs and production but who are also victimized by the system.” Similarly, though less radically, the Biden Administration’s “worker-centered trade policy” professes concern with the wellbeing of workers both “at home and abroad.”

These differences in emphasis have policy implications. Do you take lower labor and environmental standards in other countries as a justification for imposing tariffs to “level the playing field”? Or do you double down on working with those countries to improve their standards? Cass’s framing leans heavily towards the former approach; the left would advocate the latter.

A second way in which the left-wing critique differs from and complements Cass’s perspective is in emphasizing how domestic policies shape the impact of globalization. Cass’s account gives the impression that all was well with the U.S. economy until roughly the start of the new millennium, when China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). The left instead points out that a key cause of the high levels of inequality in the United States, namely the decoupling of wage and productivity growth, started much earlier, in the late 1970s and 1980s. On this view, it has primarily been domestic policies—including anti-union laws, the fall of the real value of the minimum wage, the housing crisis precipitated by restrictive zoning, and rampant financialization—that have kept large swaths of the U.S. population from sharing in the spoils of globalization. Cass argues that globalization has increased the need for redistribution, while the left would argue that it is these sorts of pre-distributive policies that rig the domestic market in favor of the rich.

To be sure, Cass does not let domestic policy off the hook, but his emphasis on the threat that foreign goods and money pose to the U.S. economy and social fabric suggests that trade policy bears significant, perhaps even primary, responsibility for the U.S. economy’s current ills. Some on the left would ask why, if this is so, many other developed economies have fared so differently. No other major developed country has experienced a backlash against international trade on the scale that we have seen in the United States. Nor have others experienced the same levels of inequality.

There are two other critiques of globalization that receive little airtime in Cass’s account. He persuasively explains how globalization has destroyed the coincidence of interests among American capitalists and American workers and thereby diminished the vitality of the U.S. economy. But globalization is in tension with other values as well. A geo-economic narrative that highlights the security risks of economic interdependence is quickly becoming the new establishment consensus in Washington. Given the often right-of-center inclination of this perspective, it is surprising not to see it take a more central role in Cass’s framework.

In many ways, the geo-economic narrative and Cass’s perspective are aligned. Thus, one could argue that companies should reshore their production both to revive domestic manufacturing (which appears to be Cass’s priority) and bolster national security. However, there are also tensions between the two perspectives. A geo-economic strategy requires close cooperation with allies to be sustainable—the coalition that the Biden Administration is building vis-à-vis Russia is an example. By contrast, the vision of globalization that American Compass advocates places balancedtrade front and center, without differentiating between friend and foe in the pursuit of this objective.

The other striking omission from Cass’s framework is a discussion of the climate crisis. The global diffusion of Western patterns of production and consumption has undeniably played a central role in bringing us into an ever more precarious world of climate change-related extreme weather events, including storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and rising sea levels. For many governments and their constituents, arresting these developments is a principal challenge for the international economic order. From their perspective, a vision of the future of globalization needs to speak to this challenge.

Economic globalization and economic policymaking are complex and multifaceted. The best chance for achieving meaningful change lies in building alliances among proponents of different narratives that often see and value different things. Cass and American Compass are leading the conservative critique of globalization, but translating that critique into political change requires an understanding of how that perspective overlaps with and differs from rival accounts of who wins and who loses from globalization.

Return to the Commons

Anthea Roberts is a professor at the School of Regulation and Global Governance at the Australian National University. Nicolas Lamp is an associate professor at Queen's University. They are co-authors of Six Faces of Globalization: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why it Matters.

Globalists Finally See Reality

Clyde Prestowitz | Apr 04, 2022 | Trade

On March 3, 2018, The Economist declared that the free world had “made the wrong bet” in trying to make China “a responsible stakeholder in the rules based, liberal global order.” Last week, major hedge fund manager and long-time globalization champion Larry Fink declared that “globalization is over.” When the former high priests of globalization […]

How to Bound the American Market

Michael Stumo | Apr 01, 2022 | Trade

In his essay, Oren Cass correctly argues that a well-functioning capitalist system requires a “bounded market” within a nation-state that imposes interdependence on labor, capital, and consumers. Frictionless capital mobility across borders, in contrast, decouples the interests of investors from their country and their workers. Global capital flows have become massive in volume, unrelated to […]