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July 25, 2001 -- This week, people will travel inexpensively from all over the globe to Genoa, Italy—to protest the policies that made their travel possible. Protest leaders will use cell phones to swiftly shift protestors away from police and toward fruitful spots for agitation. People in Genoa will protest globalization—just the way others have protested it in Seattle, in Prague, and in Toronto. They will dress in the same counter-culture clothing with the same rebellious hairstyles and bathing habits.
And they will riot in the name of freedom, destroying property and disrupting peaceful assemblies in order to restrict international commerce.
The fact that anti-globalization protests are just another global trend makes them faintly ridiculous. But the hollow, negative, and self-contradictory view of life that lies behind the protests makes them sinister.There is nothing wrong with people disliking McDonald’s hamburgers, or not caring to watch the latest summer-action-blockbuster. Indeed, it is the essence of freedom to be economically free: to be allowed the choice to take or leave the products available in the marketplace and the ideas offered in the intellectual arena. But the protestors don’t want to be free. Instead, they are free people begging for chains.
“Stop me before I shop at Wal-mart! Tax me, so I won’t take my kids to Euro-Disney! Ban Hollywood films; otherwise, I’ll watch them! Prevent foreign investment; otherwise, I might work for a multi-national firm!”
In the last few decades, a wave of liberating economic policies has swept the world. Capital flows more freely and capitalism spreads more widely. This process has brought an unprecedented level of wealth, comfort, and choice wherever it has been given free reign. It has changed cultures, as people choose to buy new products or switch lifestyles based on what makes them happy, not based on their local tradition or local prejudice.
Now it might be right that many people are choosing products that are trendy or international without thinking hard about what is best for them. Perhaps some people are setting aside worthy traditions too hastily. But it is only in a free system, a system of free commerce and free association, that people can decide which products and practices are best. Sometimes we choose wrong, but only choice will set us right.
This week in Genoa, people will meet to promote freedom. But they won’t be the trendy, nihilistic protestors howling outside the meetings. They will be the politicians at the G8 meeting working to free up trade and leave more room for real human choice all over the globe. More power to them.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.