Back in 1993, when the propaganda campaign for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement was swinging, there were three main reasons offered as to why NAFTA should pass. It would help reduce illegal immigration from Mexico; it would help modernize the Mexican economy, and it would help Americans by removing trade barriers. Not one turned out to be true.
The effect on immigration is obvious enough: Immigration ever since has been bigger than ever. The “Mexican modernization” myth went south during the Mexican peso crisis a few months later. As for the impact on Americans, NAFTA has been pretty much a zilch as well, except perhaps for the mega-corporations that benefit from it. But how much of a zilch NAFTA and similar globalization measures have been is made a little more clear in a recent report in the New York Times. What NAFTA and similar agreements mean is probably the extinction of America’s small towns.
“All along the nation’s back roads,” the Times reports, “hundreds of towns … are teetering in the recession, and some worry that they may never recover.” [NYT, Changes in World Economy on Raw Materials May Doom Many Towns February 16, 2002] The reason the Times offers is sound: “Since the last recession, in the early 1990’s [before NAFTA], China, Russia and the former Soviet republics have charged into the world’s commodity markets. At the same time, new trade agreements have erased quotas and tariffs that long insulated United States industries from competitors.” NAFTA is not explicitly mentioned, but what other “new trade agreements” can you think of that have been adopted since the early 1990s?
As a result, small American towns wither. In Brady, Texas, farmers who relied on the export of angora wool “are victims of low prices and competition from New Zealand and Argentina.” For Bartow, Ga., “high production in countries like China have led to an oversupply and plunging prices” and the consequent devastation of the town. In Loving, N.M., which is near the “nation’s largest deposits of potash, a basic ingredient of fertilizer,” the agricultural recession and Canadian potash competition is destroying the farming economy on which the town relies. “The mining companies say most of those jobs may be gone for good.”
The free trade myth, of course, is that it all balances out. Farmers, miners and any other kind of worker put out of business by free trade can always find some new job doing something else. Right—like the people who used to be farmers and now sell antiques, as some in Silver City do, or those in Brady whose “game-stocked woods bring in money from hunters.” Of course, too, there is another kind of “balancing out,” which is simply that small towns that can’t compete with the slave labor of China and the low prices of South America simply vanish. The economic reality for workers and farmers who are middle-aged, middle-income and middle-educated is that they can’t adjust by becoming software engineers. Even if they did, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs would hire imported Indian technicians instead of the Americans. The economic reality is that Americans put out of business by the glorious globalization celebrated by business and political elites become a proletariat and the small towns from which they come cease to exist.
Aside from the economic consequences of globalization, the social and cultural—and perhaps ultimately the political—effect will be incalculable. As small towns cease to exist, cities will expand. Independently owned firms and farms will vanish along with the towns on which they depended. Workers will become more dependent on big businesses and big bureaucracies and will lose not only their economic independence but also their social and intellectual autonomy. In other words, workers and farmers who were once independent will become the equivalent of post-industrial serfs, bound not to the land but to vast organizations they don’t own and can never control.
Politically, the result will be the enhancement of the power of the elites that do run such bureaucracies and the further erosion of republican self-government. The whole point of republicanism as the Founding Fathers and their predecessors understood was that the economic and political independence of the citizen was essential for the existence of a republic. When citizens lose their autonomy and become dependent on others— government, corporations, unions—the self-government that defines republicanism dies.
The globalization that today is starting to wipe American small towns off the map merely helps complete a process of consolidation that started as early as the nineteenth century, when big business and big government between them swallowed whole communities. The difference is that back then many Americans resisted the dispossession they saw coming. Today, few Americans resist at all, and most are perfectly happy to play with the new toys the global economy promises them—and so far has failed to deliver.