Populism and the Economics of Globalization
By Dani Rodrik (Harvard University)
Abstract: Populism may seem like it has come out of nowhere, but it has been on the rise for a while. I argue that economic history and economic theory both provide ample grounds for anticipating that advanced stages of economic globalization would produce a political backlash. While the backlash may have been predictable, the specific form it took was less so. I distinguish between left-wing and right-wing variants of populism, which differ with respect to the societal cleavages that populist politicians highlight. The first has been predominant in Latin America, and the second in Europe. I argue that these different reactions are related to the relative salience of different types of globalization shocks.
Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-07-09
Review by Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa (Bangor University)
Populism has been at the front of news headlines for a while now. Whether it was the controversial campaign for Brexit led by Nigel Farage from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Boris Johnson from the Conservative Party in Great Britain, or the equally controversial campaign and victory of Donald Trump in the recent United States elections, the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-European political parties in countries like France, Greece, and Spain, the so called “anti-imperial Castro-Chavist” movements and governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, or the opposition of the Democratic Center Party (a right-wing political agrupation led by ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez) to the peace treaty in Colombia, populism is back and very strong, and according to the author, it is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Dani Rodrik combines the use of economic history and economic theory to analyze the recent surge of these populist movements across Europe and America (see a blog-post version of the paper on VOX here). The main argument of the paper is that “advanced stages of globalization are prone to populist backlash” and the specific form populism takes will depend on the different societal cleavages that politicians can exploit to promote anti-establishment movements. There will be a tendency for left-wing populism when “globalization shocks take the form of trade, finance, and foreign investment”. The opposite will happen when “the globalization shock becomes salient in the form of immigration and refugees”.
Rodrik first presents a rather short summary of what economic history has to say about the appearance of populism during the first globalization era. He points out to the abolition of the Corn Laws in Britain in 1846 as the origin of a series of commercial treaties that, combined with the Gold Standard and free mobility of capital and people, made the world almost as globalized as it is today. Nonetheless, the decline of agricultural prices in the 1870s and 1880s motivated an increase in agricultural tariffs in almost all of Europe, and later on, the United States instituted a series of acts to reduce immigration from several countries. Moreover, Rodrik argues that the first self-consciously populist movement appeared in the US during the 1880s, with the farmers’ alliance against the Gold Standard, bankers and financiers.
The author moves on to analyze the effects of trade on redistribution. Based on the theorem developed by Stolper and Samuelson (1941), Rodrik argues that in most international economic models where trade does not lead to specialization, “there is always at least one factor of production that is rendered worse off by the liberalization of trade. In other words, trade generically produces losers”. Moreover, he argues that the net profits of trade openness decrease relatively to the redistribution costs, as the initial barriers to trade are lower. He backs this argument with empirical evidence from the literature on NAFTA and the US trade with China, and a model that looks at the effect of the size of the initial tariff being removed on the change in low-skill wages and the increase in real income of the economy.
Rodrik also argues that although there could be a form of compensation for the affected industries, this is usually very costly and not practical. Also, one of the reasons why populist movements in Europe have not been anti-trade might be the existence of safety nets that made unnecessary ex-post mechanisms of compensation. Very important as well is the general perception of the masses on the degree of fairness of the increase in inequality perceived after reducing trade tariffs. Namely, populism is more likely to appear when the losses derived from globalization and increases in inequality are deemed to be produced by a group taking unfair advantage of the new economic atmosphere.
The author also analyzes the perils of financial globalization, whereby looking at the current literature of the effects of capital mobility on inequality, he concludes that countries prefer when capital adopts the form of a long-term flow, like direct foreign investment, rather than short-term, volatile financial flows. Rodrik comments that the literature has found that financial globalization tends to increase the negative impact of low-quality domestic institutions. There is also a high correlation presented by Reinhart and Rogoff (2009) between capital mobility and the incidence of banking crises.
The article concludes with an analysis of the possible determinants of the specific type of populism that spreads in a given country. In a different paper (Mukand and Rodrik, 2017) Rodrik presented a model that could explain to some extent the reason why populist movements in Europe have traditionally been right winged, whereas in Latin America they have been usually left winged. The main determinants in the model were the presence of an ethno-national/cultural or an income/social cleavage. Rodrik also provides empirical evidence of this phenomenon with a newly constructed dataset.
During my training as an economist I was well aware of the distributional effects that trade has on the economies involved. Nonetheless, the argument I heard was always that trade is a positive-sum game and net profits from it could be redistributed among the losers, thus alleviating any negative effects. The usual argument to explain why trade openness was sometimes not so popular was that the potential losers from trade were better represented and had more lobbying power, thus preventing tariff reductions. As Rodrik argues in this paper, sometimes, especially at advanced stages of globalization, not only are there problems redistributing the potential net profits; it looks as the net effects of opening more the economy at this stage might be actually negative.
This paper comes out at a moment when academics, politicians, the media, and the general public are trying to understand the reasons why these movements have appeared somewhat all of a sudden. Rodrik’s argument is that these events were predictable. The implications of the development of a particular form of populism on economic welfare are still not clear yet: analyzing this could be one of the lines of future research opened by this paper. Very often populism is associated with demagoguery, and it will be very important to differentiate between the two in the future. It is not the same that an anti-corrupt-establishment movement aims to change the political structure of a country, than filling the public opinion with lies and false promises as it happened with Brexit in the UK and with the peace treaty referendum in Colombia. In the former, the Leave campaign promised to the general public that the resources spent on the EU could be directly transferred to funding the National Health Service, which turned out to be a false statement. In the latter, leaks of recordings from the campaign opposing the peace treaty clearly showed how different socio-economic groups were fed different false arguments to gain their sympathy.
Finally, the paper shows the relevance of economic history for the discussion of present problems. Rodrik uses economic history to acknowledge that populism has sprung in the past at advanced stages of globalization. Following his example, economic historians should contribute to the literature by further explaining the channels through which populism has developed, to help us understand which are the consequences of different types of populism on economic development and societal welfare.
Mukand, Sharun, and Dani Rodrik, 2017. The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy. Harvard Kennedy School.
Reinhart, C.M. and Rogoff, K.S., 2009. This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton University Press.
Stolper, W. F. and Samuelson, P.A., 1941. “Protection and Real Wages.” Review of Economic Studies 9(1), pp. 58-73.