The sovereign individual

The people of the world are moving on, says Mark Steyn, and leaving Western Europeans — and Canadians — far behind

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The people of the world are moving on, says Mark Steyn, and leaving Western Europeans — and Canadians — far behind

New Hampshire

I was stunned to hear they were closing the Rover plant at Longbridge. Mainly I was stunned because I had no idea they still made cars at Longbridge. I was vaguely following things up to a decade or three back: I knew that ‘British Leyland’ had gone, and that Red Robbo was no longer picketing the plant every night on ITN and the BBC, and that various foreigners owned what was left of the British car industry. But the news that Longbridge is going out of business is far less amazing to me than the news that they were still (after a fashion) in business — in 2005!

I would hazard that most Britons psychologically closed down Longbridge a generation back. During last year’s Thatcher jubilee, in among the huzzahs, I received a striking number of letters from self-described Conservatives bemoaning the way that, thanks to Maggie, Britain no longer ‘made’ anything. That may be so, but it’s not thanks to Maggie so much as the two decades pre-Maggie. Permanence is the illusion of every age, and the trade-union colossi who traipsed in and out of No. 10 throughout the Seventies were too dazzled by their own unlikely eminence to consider what the world might look like the day after tomorrow.

The question I find myself mulling over now is this: what’s to stop everything turning into the British car industry? Thomas Friedman’s new book, The World Is Flat, includes among many intriguing titbits a fascinating item about the number of US tax returns being prepared by accountants in India — that’s to say, you’re a guy with a house and a job in North Carolina and your taxes are done by a fellow in Bangalore, who knows his way around the W-2s, W-4s, 1099s, etc. If you’re a Welsh accountant and you’re wondering, ‘What the hell’s a W-2?’, well, that’s why you haven’t got a piece of the US tax-return market. But the lads in the sub-continent figured it was worth mugging up on. So in 2003, 25,000 American tax returns were prepared in India. In 2004, it was 100,000. This year, it’s expected to be 400,000. And in a decade or so a lot of mediocre junior accountants in North Carolina will be feeling a bit like Red Robbo did round about the start of Mrs Thatcher’s second term. And if accountancy isn’t a safe, steady job any more, you might as well run off and join the circus.

Traditional economic theory holds that goods can be traded but services are produced and consumed locally. But technology is turning a lot of services into goods: every evening in small hospitals across America radiologists email CAT scans to Australia or India (if you’re an NHS patient on a three-year waiting list and you’re wondering what a CAT scan is, ask a friend in Bupa). When they come into work the following morning, the analysis of the scans is waiting for them. Last century’s disadvantage — the vast geographical distance — is this century’s big plus. It means, as the old song used to go, when it’s moonlight on the Hudson, it’s CAT-scan-reading time on the Ganges.

It was only after stumbling across this that I realised I was doing exactly the same thing: I recently hired someone from several time-zones away to provide certain administrative and managerial services. I opted for someone halfway round the world for the same reason as those hospitals: it’s a way for a small operation to become a round-the-clock one. We do what the radiologists do: let our distant colleague know what we want every evening, and it’s there when we start work in the morning. It has some disadvantages — I can’t get drunk and hit on her at the office Christmas party. On the other hand, I could fly out there and hit on her over Labor Day just with the money I save outsourcing my tax return to Bombay.

Is the CBI still boring on about the need for Britain to move to Central European Time in order to ‘enable us to compete more effectively in Europe’? It was a big thing with the British business lobby a decade ago, when GMT was about as welcome to them as PMT. I seem to recall they cooked up some ‘National Time Week’ time-waster to promote the cause. The problem, if memory serves, was that by the time Johnny Businessman sauntered into the office at 10.30 a.m. London time, it was 11.30 a.m. Frankfurt time and Herr Schweinhund had left for an early lunch. Doubtless there would have been real economic benefits in abandoning GMT: the west coast of Ireland could have launched itself as a new tourist hotspot, the Land of the Midday Moon. But the difference between the Central European Time-servers and those radiologists in Idaho emailing Australia is revealing: the former demand the world be rearranged to pander to one’s deficiencies; the latter find innovations by exploiting the existing order. It’s not difficult to predict which approach is likely to pay off. Central European Time is a time whose idea will never come. Instead, an increasing number of enterprises use the planet’s time-zones as a way of flexi-timing their operations across the entire day.

One of the curious trends of the modern world is that even as the UN, EU and other transnational elites demand that our politics become ever more centralised and homogenised and one-size-fits-all, successful business operations are decentralising: they’re practising corporate federalism. If you order a laptop custom-built to your precise specifications with the features you want, Dell will assemble it with components made by US, British, Irish, German, Japanese, Israeli, South Korean, Taiwanese, Thai and Chinese companies at factories located in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, China, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico and Costa Rica; it will be assembled in Penang on a Monday and arrive in Nashville by Thursday.

For the purposes of comparison, the UN has far more cash swilling about, and its global network predates Dell’s by half a century; yet, when the tsunami hit, it took not four days but four weeks for its staff to establish a presence at Banda Aceh. Dell’s ‘coalition’ is pretty eclectic — capitalist, Eurostatist, Chinese Communist, Chinese Nationalist, Latin, Anglophone, Jewish, Muslim — yet it functions harmoniously. Meanwhile, all that that pompous Norwegian who heads up the UN humanitarian bureaucracy could do was give press conferences in New York hectoring the developed world for its ‘stinginess’, so every Western government promptly dipped into its taxpayers’ pockets and threw more money at the pompous Norwegian than he can ever usefully spend, and the only result will be that, when the next tsunami hits, it’ll take ’em even longer to get to the scene, but the pompous Norwegian will be able to give even more hectoring press conferences, perhaps with lavish visual aids.

Networks like Dell’s are already more relevant to the future of Indonesia than the pompous Norwegian bloke’s UN bureaucracy is. But that’s not where the process ends. I bumped into an old friend walking down the street in Montreal the other day. He’s Chinese and when he got to Canada in the Eighties he was jolly glad about it. Now he tells me he and the wife and kids are going back to China. He says he’s had enough of being taxed up the wazoo to subsidise bloated government programmes of no value, corporate welfare for privileged Liberal party clients, the native mafiosi who run the human sinkholes of the Indian reservations, etc. He’s never sounded more Canadian. But, after 17 years, he’s finally figured out that Her Majesty’s decrepit dominion is no place for a guy who wants to work hard and build a future for his family. If that’s your bag, China’s the land of opportunity. It used to be difficult for emigrants to return, because if you took out Canadian or any other nationality, the People’s Republic revoked your Chinese citizenship. But they’re now thinking about permitting dual nationality in order to attract some of their lost talent home from the West. A couple of hours later, I heard a member of the Chinese community on the radio talking about folks heading back: in recent years, China has been Canada’s single biggest source of immigrants — accounting for 16 per cent of new permanent residents — but this fellow was saying he reckoned pretty soon more Chinese would be leaving Canada than coming to it.

I was still digesting that when I read a newspaper story about the Chinese buying up Canada’s resource base, starting with the zinc/copper/nickel-mining giant Noranda. Even though Canada still gives foreign ‘aid’ to China, our roles seem to have reversed — with China now playing the dynamic, advanced, first-world economy with the educated citizenry and Canada reduced to some ramshackle backwater of no interest except for a hinterland brimming with cheap and exploitable natural resources. China has 160 cities with a population of a million or more; Canada can barely muster a handful. Between 1995 and 2002, China had a net loss of 15 million manufacturing jobs, but it made no difference to the booming economy because of the rapidly expanding high-value service sector. The anti-globalists’ stereotype of vast Third World populations working in Western-owned sweatshops is already out of date. ‘Where people have hope,’ says a Chinese official quoted by Thomas Friedman, ‘you have a middle class.’ China and India have the fastest-growing middle classes in the world.

Ireland managed to persuade its wandering sons of Erin to return. Imagine if China did the same. For two generations, as fertility rates have nose-dived in the West, the complaceniks of Canada and Western Europe have clung to the assumption that they can go on using the Third World as a farm team and denude developing societies of their best and brightest. Even if one accepts this as enlightened and progressive rather than lazy and selfish, how could anyone seriously credit it as a long-term strategy on which to pin the viability of Euro-Canadian welfarism? The most vital economic resource is people, and that’s the one thing much of the Western world is running out of. The anti-globalists can demonise sovereign states and sovereign companies — the Dells and other multinationals — but we’re entering the age of the sovereign individual, and that will be a lot harder for the anti-glob mob to attack. By 2010, a smart energetic Chinaman or Indian will be able to write his own ticket anywhere he wants. How attractive will the prospect of moving to the European Union and supporting a population of geriatric ingrate Continentals be? Not just compared with working in America or Australia but with the economic opportunities in his own country?

Here’s a prediction: Europe’s dependence on immigration will in the end prove far more catastrophic than America’s dependence on oil. The immigrants will run out long before the oil does. And the demographic disaster will be exacerbated by a continent-wide version of ‘white flight’ — the abandonment of socially dysfunctional, economically moribund American cities in the Seventies by a frustrated middle class. Not all Dutchmen or Belgians will wish to follow their compatriots down the Eurinal of history. And, just as you can be a US tax accountant in Bangalore, in the age of the sovereign individual there’s no reason why a Dutch accountant can’t do tax returns for his Dutch clients from New Zealand or the Bahamas.

Permanence is always an illusion. The excuse is that, well, the big things change slowly, almost imperceptibly. But they’re changing very fast right now and you must actively embrace ignorance to be as impervious to reality as Europe’s ruling class is. High welfare costs, low birthrates, high taxes, and zero appeal to the world’s dynamic, ever more mobile wealth-creating class is a recipe for societal meltdown. But, as long as there’s always someone else to look down on, your own descent is less obvious. So, in the Guardian last week, Christian Aid took out the following advertisement: ‘It’s not called slavery nowadays. It’s called free trade.’

Yeah, sure. I’d love to email to India the CAT-scan of whichever Christian Aid wallah thought that would work, even as overheated rhetoric. The popular British ‘charity’ is campaigning for what it calls ‘trade justice’: ‘Poor countries must be given the freedom to help their own farmers and industries.’ By ‘poor countries’ they mean the dictators and crooks and incompetents who run ‘poor countries’; by ‘given the freedom to help’ they mean encouraged in the delusions that have made ‘poor countries’ out of once prosperous territories. When Ghana (the ‘case study’ Christian Aid is currently exercised about) became independent in 1957, per capita income was as high as South Korea. Now South Korea’s GDP per capita is over eight times what Ghana’s is.

Who would you rather showed up at the airport? A company in that Dell network, or the condescending neo-imperialists of Christian Aid and the rest of the anachronistic Big Humanitarian lobby?