Globalization is nothing new. Although the word only became popular in the late 1980’s, the phenomenon is as old as civilization. Globalization is merely an extension of the tendency of all complex social systems to grow and evolve. Whereas civilizations once grew within disparate regions limited by geography and politics, now it is growing across the entire world. Globalization has been the manifestation of that growth.
Rather than depicting human civilization as a set of discrete entities, he depicts it as a network.
Brexit has roused concern that the fraying of international organizations might impede, or even turn back, the progress generated by globalization. However, this concern largely stems from a mischaracterization of globalization. Globalization has progressed because of the growth of connections on the free market and civil society rather than because of the expansion of international organizations.
National Borders are Deceptive
The national borders on a map are not a very good representation of the geography of our global civilization. They deceive us into thinking that globalization progresses by virtue of the expansion of those lines. Accurately representing the de facto geography of connectivity requires an entirely different map than the one we find in classrooms.
With his recent book Connectography, Parag Khanna has alleviated that cartographic difficulty. He argues that ever more extensive connections have transformed the way that humanity has made use of their geography. Only by shifting how we understand the social geography of our civilization can we understand the staggering consequences of the multiplication of connections the world over. Khanna helps us achieve that shift.
Understanding that seeing is believing, Khanna depicts those unseen connections with a menagerie of maps, charting everything from the urban archipelagos growing the world-economy to the trade routes concatenating nations around the world. Rather than depicting human civilization as a set of discrete entities, he depicts it as a network and thereby illustrates how it evolved through the growth of that network.
Rather than revealing the deterioration of globalization, Brexit reveals the fragile nature of political geography.
The discrete nature of a national map obscures the myriad number of connections that transcend de jure geography and add up to a global society. Even a decade ago, the undeniable characteristic of globalization was that every person in the developed world consumes many goods produced the world over.
Globalization today is characterized by the fact that each person can expect to maintain social connections with somebody on the other side of the planet as if she were a next-door neighbor. The expansion of international governing bodies have not been the generators of such progress; instead, that progress has been made possible by the connections generated in civil society and the free market.
In the wake of Brexit, many commentators have argued that the Leave vote has been a wound to the progress towards an ever more globalized world. Both Larry Elliott in The Guardian and Carmen Reinhart at Project Syndicate have expressed such sentiments. Mr. Elliott, in particular, argued that Brexit was a rejection of the political model that has advanced globalization over the past three decades. However, as Parag Khanna’s Connectography demonstrates, political connections have become increasingly obsolete as globalization has progressed.
For example, London is not a hub of our emerging worldwide civilization because of its membership in the European Union. London is a hub because of its focal position in the planet’s de facto geography of connections. Each day, around £2.5 trillion pass through London’s foreign exchange market, £880 billion is generated in London’s interest-rate derivative market and around 75 million passengers pass through Heathrow. The connections behind those three quantities have little to do with whether Britain is a member of the European Union or any other international organization. Instead, they have evolved because of London’s role as a global hub of finance and travel.
Rigidity Is Fragility
Rather than revealing the deterioration of globalization, Brexit reveals the fragile nature of political geography. Whereas they are free to enter and leave the de facto connections integrating their nation with the rest of the world, Britons are nowhere as free when it comes to their nation’s de jure connection with the European Union. Even if they would like to enjoy the benefits EU membership confers, they would be unable to choose a custom option for themselves. Instead, a single plan is selected for all. To change that plan, Britain needed a hard-fought referendum—a referendum that left almost half of the population frustrated.
Neither referenda nor legislation are necessary to change how people interact with one another.
The tragedy of Brexit is that genuinely no one knows the outcome either Leave or Remain would bring with them. The success of Leave, just as the success of Remain had it won, depends on whether its adopters have correctly anticipated future events. As Nassim Taleb discussed in his book Antifragile, these kinds of plans are fragile because any deviation from those foreseen events tends to bring more harm than benefit. Any deviation from fragile plans can tear them asunder. Nor is it apparent that we can rely on the planners. All too many of the same technocrats who decry Brexit were the very same experts who thought that both the expansion of the Euro across all of Europe and the 2003 invasion of Iraq were good plans.
Fluidity is Resilience
Whereas the connections of a multinational agreement such as the European Union are fragile, those of the free market are, in the words of Nassim Taleb, antifragile. The free market is largely free of the fragilizing dysfunction of top-down planning that afflicts de jure connections. It is a system that allows for entrepreneurs to experiment with their own plans.
Although, most of those plans will fail, the free market is able to nevertheless select those solutions that best grapple with the problems they are met with. Volatility therefore serves to reveal the options best adapted to solving problems. Individual plans may be fragile, but their fragility guarantees the antifragility of the wider system. Whereas de jure geography is restricted to following top-down plans, de facto geography emerges from the adoption of the best plans from a wider population.
That antifragility extends to the connections that have advanced the course of globalization. Neither referenda nor legislation are necessary to change how people interact with one another. People are free to pursue their own options. They may simply leave the connections they do not like and enter ones more to their liking. Every day on the free market, people select the options that best improve their flourishing. Their tinkering with different options leads to the emergence of ever superior connections.
That trial-and-error experimentation enables the free market to select the best ways of configuring the connections that define our global civilization.
Evolution, rather than human design, governs globalization. Although attention may now be focused on the ramifications of de jure geography, the free market’s antifragile connections shall continue to advance globalization. Hopefully, the growth of those de facto connections will increasingly eclipse the role that de jure connections play in our lives and will, whatever may be Brexit’s ultimate outcome, tie the human species ever closer in a global civilization.
Harrison Searles is an alumnus of the Mercatus Center