Saturday, September 17, 2005

Johan Norberg: Talking Sense from the Evidence

Emma-Kate Symons writes a piece about Johan Norberg in today’s Australian: “In defence of a global about-face” (Quotations © The Australian 2005)”The Washington Post describes him as a glamorous young pro-capitalist who is reinventing radical chic. He is the darling of the American libertarian Right and occupies the celebrity socioeconomic guru territory once monopolised by leftist No Logo (anti-globalisation) activist Naomi Klein.”Norberg “proudly sports a ponytail and happily recounts his past life as a student anarchist.”

This must be the headline’s reference to “global turnaround”.

His name is mentioned alongside "the Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and economist Jagdish Bhagwati."

(I am rooting for Jagdish Bhagwati’s recent nomination for a Nobel Prize in Economics; he had a great influence in my student days and has carried on the good work in his recent pronouncements in defence of globalisation.)

He told Emma-Kate Symons that:

"I used to share many of the beliefs of the anti-globalisation movement. That is where I came from. I saw economic change and restructuring as more of a problem and I didn't see the positive side to it”.

"But then I began to study Swedish history and read about the fact that 100 or 150 years ago every country was a poor country, including Sweden. It is so easy to take these things for granted. But when you see that our forefathers were actually starving you have to think about the dynamic creative forces that have turned this around."

Now there is nothing like a dose of evidence to incite people to change their minds. I recommend it as a method. Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” contains well-argued ideas plus a great deal of empirical evidence.

Norberg claims Adam Smith, John Locke and Ayn Rand as the “key influences” on his ideas and he is passionate about “ending global poverty”. He represents what changed him from ending global poverty on an anti-globalisation programme to become a leading voice for globalization were stories of real people whose lives were changed positively for the better, like that of:

“Bhagant, an elderly agricultural worker and untouchable in the Indian village of Saijani, this leads to houses being built of brick instead of mud, and to people getting shoes on their feet and clean clothes - not rags - on their backs," (from his book: “In Defence of Global Capitalism”).

"Outdoors the streets now have drains and the fragrance of tilled earth has replaced the stench of refuse. Thirty years ago Bhagant didn't know he was living in India. Today he watches world news on television."

Again Norberg cites more evidence:

“Since 1981, extreme poverty in the developing world has been reduced by half. It has dropped from 40 per cent to about 21 per cent. The world has never seen such a rapid reduction in poverty, hunger and infant mortality."

Norberg’s approach is an excellent example of the appropriate use of Adam Smith’s legacy and it is a welcome change from the usual nonsense I am often obliged to quote from and correct here.


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