The problem with global elites

A fantastic essay by Dani Rodrik, that should be read in full:

Last October, British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked many when she disparaged the idea of global citizenship. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she said, “you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

…I know what a “global citizen” looks like: I see a perfect specimen every time I pass a mirror. I grew up in one country, live in another, and carry the passports of both. I write on global economics, and my work takes me to far-flung places. I spend more time traveling in other countries than I do within either country that claims me as a citizen.

…And yet May’s statement strikes a chord. It contains an essential truth – the disregard of which says much about how we – the world’s financial, political, and technocratic elite – distanced ourselves from our compatriots and lost their trust.

…Real citizenship entails interacting and deliberating with other citizens in a shared political community. It means holding decision-makers to account and participating in politics to shape the policy outcomes. In the process, my ideas about desirable ends and means are confronted with and tested against those of my fellow citizens.

Global citizens do not have similar rights or responsibilities. No one is accountable to them, and there is no one to whom they must justify themselves. At best, they form communities with like-minded individuals from other countries. Their counterparts are not citizens everywhere but self-designated “global citizens” in other countries.

cosmopolitans often come across like the character from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov who discovers that the more he loves humanity in general, the less he loves people in particular. Global citizens should be wary that their lofty goals do not turn into an excuse for shirking their duties toward their compatriots.

…We have to live in the world we have, with all its political divisions, and not the world we wish we had. The best way to serve global interests is to live up to our responsibilities within the political institutions that matter: those that exist.

More eloquent than my Twitter crisis the morning after the Trump victory:

8 thoughts on “The problem with global elites

  1. My husband and I are both working abroad for the same issues. We’ve been talking about this since the elections! Your thoughts here are exactly ours..

  2. Here is the comment I just left on the Project Syndicate page:

    Within my circle of friends of late there has been an odd mix of international awareness coupled with a sense of powerlessness . The best illustration of this has been regarding the suffering in Aleppo, where on social media people commonly post heartwrenching videos and things showing the horror there. And yet there is little one can do to alleviate these poor people’s suffering. You can write your Congressman all you like, but some suffering on the world stage (as in the case of Syria) is because of a rigid stalemate between world powers. There is little I can do realistically to change the interplay between these powers, and coming to grips with that truth can be painful.

    What can do is to take that natural, human reaction to suffering elsewhere and express it locally. There are plenty of opportunities. All we need to do is look. The worst thing we can do is let that sense of civic responsibility and humanity be wasted.

    As to this particular point:

    “But what happens when the welfare of local residents comes into conflict with the wellbeing of foreigners – as it often does? Isn’t disregard of their compatriots in such situations precisely what gives so-called cosmopolitan elites their bad name?”

    I don’t want to overstep the intended meaning of things like rationality, self-interest, etc. as they are used by economists and political scientists. But I would say this: the statement above alleging that “the welfare of local residents [often] comes into conflict with the wellbeing of foreigners” is necessarily true only in a narrow materialistic sense. If Americans lived in a constant state of empathy for, for instance, their much poorer brothers and sisters in Sub-Saharan Africa, then a policy of greatly expanded international aid to those countries would be both detrimental to Americans’ material well-being and democratically popular.

    Of course the world doesn’t work like that — people don’t really care enough about the lot of those outside their national boundaries — but that is the point. If that were to change, this tension between national and international policies would relax, and many global issues could be solved much more easily.

    Democratic representatives much respond to the interests of their constituents. Of course. But let’s consider the possibility that the interests of those constituents can be much more magnanimous and selfless than what we assume.

  3. Hi Professor, I have a short story for you.

    During college and grad school, I was obsessed with global development and foreign policy. I even interned at Center for Global Development for a summer. I loved the policy wonkiness of people in the development blogosphere, including yourself, Rodrik, and all the other nerds who have so many thoughts on Poor Economics!

    But over time, I stopped reading your blog. I stopped following development wonks on Twitter, I stopped reading Foreign Policy. I left graduate school to do other things, that life was not for me.

    Unexpectedly, I returned home to Los Angeles. I started attending civic events in the city, I made connections with wonderful and passionate people who cared about social issues within the local fabric of my home. I realized I had infinitely more control, influence, and community among my natural environment that I would have never found in DC.

    Community empowerment was no longer something that my younger humanitarian wanted to do in a developing country, for it was now in my own backyard. I started reading local politics, I started attending community events. I got involved, I developed new skill sets, and I tried new things. While my passion for development had faded, my hopes of living a socially-conscious life only evolved.

    Through circumstances I could not predict, I found myself working for Hillary’s campaign. I would not never imagined that 3 years ago, when I was so intertwined with global economics, I would never cared about the rat race of domestic politics. I regret my younger ignorance, how I wished I had started sooner.

    Months on the campaign trail exposed a side of politics that I had skimmed over in my books, and how I wish I tried harder in my old classes in school! The importance of voting rights, interest group politics, the influence and importance of money in campaigns, gerrymandering, the sociological theories of mass movements and organizing, political communication, race and gender, race and gender, race and gender. I was (am) a data analyst, and how I wish I cared more about statistics and research methods…

    But the past is the past. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us, as Gandalf says. The fight has been going on for decades, people have been resisting power long before Trump even sniffed office. It is up to me and you and all of us to continue those battles, to be unafraid of the work of politics that lies ahead.

    And you, Professor? There’s a thousand things you can do. Use your natural strengths as a writer and researcher to explore new avenues to communicate the interplay between domestic and global politics. You can funnel your students and readers to get connected to local institutions of power, whether it be through party politics or civic organizations or the bureaucracies of the city, county, and state. You can donate your time and money to organizations doing good work, you can volunteer with activist networks who are working to either elect new leaders or hold current ones accountable. Hell, go volunteer for a city council election, and see how the sausage gets made.

    I’ve got more specific ideas and organizations in mind, ping me if you’re interested. The sense of energy and civic engagement that has erupted in the last 3 months is a consolation prize I will accept, if a new generation of Americans rediscovers their power in this democracy.

    Good luck!

  4. …We have to live in the world we have, with all its political divisions, and not the world we wish we had. The best way to serve global interests is to live up to our responsibilities within the political institutions that matter:

    golu dolls
    golu dolls