Monday, February 02, 2004

Democracy versus the free market
Amy Chua, a Fil-Am law professor teaching at Yale (who, if internet rumor is to be trusted, wears leather trousers during lectures), has this thesis that is increasingly becoming popular among academic circles, which she expounded in a number of essays (like this one appearing in the Wilson Quarterly).

Globalization, according to Chua, is simultaneously inundating the developing world with free-market capitalism and democracy. Those two, however, make different sets of people powerful. The ascendancy of the free market means more power to the minorities who dominate national economies (like the Chinese in Southeast Asia, the Lebanese in Westy Africa); the promotion of democracy though gives political power to the majorities. Chua says that when these two groups of people collide you get explosions of ethnic violence.

Market-dominant minorities are the Achilles’ heel of free-market democracy. In societies with such a minority, markets and democracy favor not just different people or different classes but different ethnic groups. Markets concentrate wealth, often spectacular wealth, in the hands of the market-dominant minority, while democracy increases the political power of the impoverished majority. In these circumstances, the pursuit of free-market democracy becomes an engine of potentially catastrophic ethnonationalism, pitting a frustrated “indigenous” majority, easily aroused by opportunistic, vote-seeking politicians, against a resented, wealthy ethnic minority.

Chua offers a new way of looking at what is happening in the Third World. The American audience though is interested because Chua says that the Americans are a market-dominating minority in the global stage, and the resentment being generated by American success is comparable to the resentment being directed against, for example, the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia.

Chua's sexy thesis rings true. The poor and the wealthy are naturally predisposed to collide (didn't Marx say this before?). Two-pronged globalization (free market and democracy) is making those potential collisions deadlier by empowering both the poor and the wealthy.

Chua extrapolated her thesis from the murder of her wealthy Chinese aunt (who gifted her with a gold bar during graduation!) by the Filipino family driver. I wonder though if she is correct in saying that the Filipinos resent the welath of the ethnic Chinese in the Philippines. My opinion is that Filipinos, like Americans, do not resent great wealth; otherwise, with the feudalism and inequality of the Philippines, the communists should have made significant inroads and should be close to a revolution by now.

The above thesis has been developed by Chua into a book: World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. The book has been hailed by the editors of the Economist as one of last year's best books on current affairs.

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