Johan Norberg: ‘Some time ago, they told me that I was far-right, and now, from the right, they tell me that I am a woke capitalist’

The Swedish historian, an advocate of classical liberalism, argues that for a certain sector of the right today, defending the beliefs of Thatcher and Reagan is being a ‘cultural Marxist’

Ignacio Fariza
Johan Norberg
Johan Norberg at the Rafael del Pino Foundation in Madrid, Spain.Samuel Sánchez

Johan Norberg, 50, is first and foremost an optimist who has the arguments to back it up. A staunch defender of classical liberalism and globalization, a historian who was an anarchist in his youth, in some ways the Swede follows in the footsteps of psychologist Steven Pinker with the basic argument that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Norberg believes that the pursuit of profit, which for many is what drives the system, is “vulgar.” He is interested in something more “beautiful”: creating a better world.

A professor at the European Center for International Economic Policy (Brussels) and the Cato Institute (Washington, DC), in his latest book, which has the deliberately provocative title of The Capitalist Manifesto, he seeks “to distract the reader from the culture wars and return him or her to the issues, to decisive issues for our future.” We spoke with the affable Norberg before he gave a lecture at the Rafael del Pino Foundation in Madrid, Spain.

Question. You say that social justice needs more capitalism, not less.

Answer. For years, political scientists have been focused on the hardships of humanity: infant mortality, chronic malnutrition... And it turns out we have the solution: capitalism. In the past few decades, we have reduced poverty, mortality and hunger more than at any other time in history. That has happened in places where there is more economic freedom.

Q. There is a lot of academic work by very important thinkers who argue the opposite: the need for higher taxes and a greater role for the state in the economy.

A. In general, my answer is that we cannot generate wealth through taxes. We can only provide the social services we need through the generation of wealth. In the long run, growth is almost everything: Sweden is one of the richest countries in the world, but if its economic growth had been one percentage point less since industrialization, we would be like Albania now. It is absurd that growth and innovation are not considered more.

Q. Industrial policy has also gained a lot of traction.

A. Yes, and that’s a shame. None of the things we hold most dear, from bicycles to vaccines, come from a single genius or a political committee. Progress comes from a long process of experimentation involving thousands of people, not from someone at the top or a political majority saying, “We need to innovate here.”

Q. You write that “we need free markets to end poverty and hunger.” There has been an improvement, but hunger remains.

A. I don’t think we will ever finish solving these problems. But in countries that have had sustained economic and trade freedom, extreme poverty has nearly been eradicated.

Q. Has protectionism won the dialectical battle?

A. Many governments advocate that we repatriate as much as possible. But this is a terrible misreading of the recent crises. What saved us from the pandemic? Businesses with complex supply chains: they were able to improvise and find new suppliers. The opposite erodes productivity and does not make us safer.

Q. At what point did China become the great defender of global markets instead of the United States?

A. It was curious when Xi Jinping presented himself in Davos as an advocate of globalization and free trade, which is absurd. China controls and uses free trade as a weapon. That speaks badly of Western politicians: they have managed the globalization debate so poorly that China can argue that.

Q. You said that the “new generation of conservative politicians now sound very much like Attac did in 2001.″

A. Some time ago, they told me that I was far-right, and now, from the right, they tell me that I am a woke capitalist. But I have not changed: they are the ones who have changed. Twenty years ago, there was concern that the economy was a zero-sum game where some win and others lose. It has become clear, however, that poor countries that have integrated into the global market, such as Bangladesh, India and China, have reduced their poverty faster than the rest in human history. Now the opposite is true: many believe that if they are prospering, perhaps it is because we are losing out, and that they are exploiting us. This has provided an argument for the populist and nationalist right: they believe we should close our borders and abandon trade to defend ourselves.

“More innovations and culture and goods and services come from what we used to think about as the poor world”

Q. Why is this idea of the zero-sum game still so entrenched?

A. We should be grateful for living in [the post-Industrial Revolution period], being one of those generations who have experienced this, because it’s taken us from 1890% in extreme poverty to around 8% today. But that’s not where our instincts come from, that’s not where our belief system comes from, and that’s not where human nature comes from. It comes from the 290,000 years before when we lived in a much more brutal world where, really, if someone was richer than you, he had probably taken it from you. So, I think we will always be suspicious against others who do better, neighbors, foreigners, big business…because at some level we think that they probably took it from us. That’s a period when the economy really was a zero-sum game, since it didn’t create more wealth. Whatever someone took, they took it from another group. And that reinforces something that’s very strong in the back of our minds. So, we are very tempted to revert to that idea. And that’s dangerous.

Q. Donald Trump defines a globalist as “someone who doesn’t care much” about his own country.

A. I think Trump is an early indicator of something that has spread throughout right-wing parties in lots of places. And it’s awful because it’s really the other way around. A globalist is someone who cares so much about your country that you want it to be enriched by other people…and by foreigners as well. And [you want] to get access to more brains, more talent, more hard work and more innovation from other places as well. If you shut yourself behind your borders, then you’re going to have to make do with everything you’ve got back there. And then you won’t survive the competition from those who are more open.

Q. Has this been the biggest ideological mutation of recent decades?

A. Yeah, I would say so…If you repeat what [Ronald] Reagan and [Margaret] Thatcher said about the world, about trade, about openness, or about the European Union, for example, lots of right-wing people would call you a cultural Marxist or a woke person now. And that’s an incredible switch that I was not prepared for.

Q. What would you say to those who think globalization has failed?

A. If we say that globalization is the period from the [fall] of the Berlin Wall, basically the past 30 years, it is the period that we’ve seen the fastest decline in extreme poverty in human history. And more than a third of all the wealth that mankind has attained on a capital GDP level has been produced [during this time]. It’s an amazing result and I think we will look back on this period and say this was the pivotal moment when we went from talking about the great famines and world poverty into thinking about how we are going to deal with a world where more innovations and culture and goods and services come from what we used to think about as the poor world. This has been a tremendous success. So, it hasn’t failed on the indicators of human living standards, I don’t think.

Q. How would you respond to those who say that you are overly optimistic?

A. This case for globalization is based on just looking at objective indicators of living standards and looking at what is possible because we’ve seen it in real terms. And in a way we often talk about it as miracles when it happens, but it’s not a miracle because we’ve gone through the same things in Sweden historically, in Britain, in Spain. The moment that we began to open up markets and develop more competitive businesses, we get out of extreme poverty and that’s tremendous. And right now, we have this backlash against globalization, against trade. We have resurgent authoritarians in China and Russia and places like that. So that deeply worries me about the future of the world as well.

Q. In 2018, you said “we are addicted to bad news.” Is that still the case?

A. We are just as addicted to bad news as we’ve ever been… I think we get the sense from just the push notifications that flash on our cell phones that everything’s on fire everywhere. [My cellphone notifications] didn’t work for three days. And I realized after a while that I became a much happier person. I became much more relaxed because I didn’t instantly get access to all the murders and the wars and the terrors that were committed around the world. When we’re anxious, we often look for a solution. We want someone to tell us what’s going on and to help us, to protect us. And this creates this urge for having strong men to protect us. And that’s very dangerous.

Q. What can we do about it?

A. I think that this requires a major change from the media, partly, to put things more into context rather than just looking for the next drama. But it’s also an individual thing. We’ve gone from a world where we needed every bit of information that we could lay our hands on, because it was rare, to an excess of information everywhere.

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