George W. Bush used to talk about the Forward Strategy of Freedom, which is perhaps looking a little better now that we’ve seen some vindication for the notion that Arabs and Muslim would be willing to stand up for freedom. An unappreciated part of that strategy was Bush’s push for global free trade, with the goal of binding all the nations of the world together by the bonds of peaceful trade. I called it the Forward Strategy of Capitalism.
After something of a pause, that agenda is back on again, and in a big way, with frenzied negotiations under way for two enormous new free trade agreements, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The first is a giant free trade deal between the US and the European Union. The second includes much of the Pacific Rim. Between them, they would set up free trade as the norm for a majority of the world’s economy. As Timothy Garton Ash observes: “To mark the 100th anniversary of 1914, we would be getting back to something like the free-trading world we had before 1914—but on a larger scale, with less formal colonialism and with more complex and deeper forms of interconnection.”
All of this has a lot more bearing on the current turmoil in the Middle East than you might think. Hernando de Soto is a hero of capitalism for identifying the road by which poor countries can join the capitalist world and become rich—if only more countries would take advantage of his advice. The essence of his advice is: make it easy to legally own property and run a business. You cannot imagine how difficult that is to do is many areas of the world. Or maybe, given the direction we’re going right now, you can.
At any rate, De Soto has been paying particular attention to the role of economics and property rights as a driver of the Arab Spring.
“The Arab Spring was a massive economic protest: a demand that the poor should have the basic rights to buy, sell and make their way in the world. I have the nerve to say this because just after the death of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller who started the Arab Spring by setting himself ablaze, my researchers spent 20 months in the region to find out more. Why would someone kill himself after he had lost a cartful of fruit and an old set of scales? We found something the newspapers missed: he was not alone. No fewer 63 men and women replicated Bouazizi’s protest within two months of his death, in one country after another.
“We interviewed their families, and started to piece together their story—the true story of the Arab Spring. The picture is now complete and the facts are in….
“They were all, like Bouazizi, extralegal entrepreneurs—protesting for the right to get on. The right to own and better their lives; to accumulate capital; not to have their property expropriated on a whim. They were in businesses as diverse as restaurants, computing, real estate, opticians and taxis and their decision to commit suicide in public was usually taken after the authorities confiscated their wares or their documentation. As one Tunisian survivor told us: ‘I have no problem with competition, but expropriation is an indignity. Authorities do not recognize what is ours, and that is not tolerable.'”
And there is more to it than this. We saw before how Islamism requires lack of education to survive—and poverty is a major source of the lack of education. Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood depend on the fact that Egypt has a relatively small number of educated liberals in the cities, and a vast mass of totally uneducated brutes in the hinterland, with no access to the wider world. For many millions, their only contact with the world of ideas is the imam at the local mosque. A society rising into the middle class becomes an educated society, which produces an army of informed and inquisitive young people. (And yes, that’s true here in America. How do you think we’ve survived so long?) It produces an army of Ali Ahmeds, who listen and read and search the Internet and have enough time and resources to use their own brains and really get somewhere.
To support this, we need the Forward Strategy of Capitalism.