From East to West and back again

How to think about globalization: Lessons from Amartya Sen.

Published June 28, 2006 10:28PM (EDT)

Now that I've resurrected a 2-year-old Honda ad, it's time to go back even further, and contemplate a 4-year-old essay by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen in the American Prospect, "How to Judge Globalism."

Sen's essay on globalization should be read in full. I wish I had encountered it before commencing this blog; it would have saved me a lot of time spent figuring out some crucial nuances. Sen places globalization in historical context, noting that it is not a purely "Western" phenomenon, but has roots in cultural flows that go back to ancient times and were as likely to move from East to West as the other way around.

He is also extraordinarily careful and eloquent in separating out the relevant issues. Of paramount importance is the question of how the gains from globalization are distributed both between rich and poor nations and between the rich and poor in individual nations.

I will quote his conclusion, but urge all readers to start from the beginning. It's worth it.

"To conclude, the confounding of globalization with Westernization is not only ahistorical, it also distracts attention from the many potential benefits of global integration. Globalization is a historical process that has offered an abundance of opportunities and rewards in the past and continues to do so today. The very existence of potentially large benefits makes the question of fairness in sharing the benefits of globalization so critically important."

"The central issue of contention is not globalization itself, nor is it the use of the market as an institution, but the inequity in the overall balance of institutional arrangements -- which produces very unequal sharing of the benefits of globalization. The question is not just whether the poor, too, gain something from globalization, but whether they get a fair share and a fair opportunity. There is an urgent need for reforming institutional arrangements -- in addition to national ones -- in order to overcome both the errors of omission and those of commission that tend to give the poor across the world such limited opportunities. Globalization deserves a reasoned defense, but it also needs reform."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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