[This review was published in the Spring 1999 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 126-128.]


Book Review 


The Great Betrayal: How American Sovereignty and Social Justice Are Being Sacrificed to the Gods of the Global Economy

Patrick J. Buchanan

Little, Brown and Company, 1998 


            As late as 1987, Pat Buchanan was committed to free trade ideology, which since the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s has prevailed within both the American Right and the American Left.

            Later experiences on the presidential campaign trail caused him, however, to question his premises.  As he met people and came to know their problems, he arrived at a very different understanding: that economic globalism, by flooding the American market with goods produced by workers who receive far less than the prevailing wage in the United States, undercuts the economic, cultural and political foundations of American society.

            The Great Betrayal tells how Buchanan believes that the United States is ill-served by the current failure to protect its workers, its culture and its national sovereignty.  Americans of all ideological persuasions—and most especially “conservatives” who care both about American national interests and the theory of free markets—will find it valuable to read this book.  The only prerequisite is that they be as honest with themselves as Buchanan has been with himself.  Such a prerequisite is, of course, a major obstacle; Buchanan exhibits traits that are as rare as they are valuable: fundamental intellectual honesty and a strength of character that allow him to admit when he has been wrong and to change course when facts and events demand it.

            These are issues, however, that will dominate politics and social philosophy in the United States and elsewhere during the first half of the coming century.  As Buchanan puts it, the conflict between nationalism and globalism “is the new conflict of the age that succeeds the Cold War.”

            Buchanan observes that the act of throwing the American labor market open to global competition is rapidly fracturing American society along class lines.  A new transnational elite, he says, is becoming set off against the majority of the people, who are increasingly vulnerable economically and are even under threat of losing their national and cultural identity.  Here are some of the features he traces:

·        The impact on middle-America, as even during a long “boom” period of the 1990s middle class anxiety grows, hopes become down-sized, family incomes stagnate, real wages fall, and more and more wives work so that families can tread water economically.

·        The plight of the United States as a whole, as the trade deficit continues for what will soon be three uninterrupted decades; the percentage of manufacturing falls, and with it the percentage of well-paid manufacturing jobs; in place of them, ever more poorly paid jobs come into existence; foreign ownership of American assets and debts increases; and the United States becomes increasingly vulnerable to the shocks inherent in global interdependence.

·        The on-going erosion of national sovereignty through a variety of factors such as the growth of worldwide corporations that have no national loyalties, the country’s increasing dependence on foreign sources of supply, and the effect of trade agreements that subordinate the U.S. to the decisions of transnational boards.

            Buchanan includes an extensive review of American economic history, recalling that through most of American history the country was committed to protecting its domestic market, and a point-by-point critique of free trade ideology, debunking many of the arguments that he himself embraced just a decade ago.

            He calls for an “enlightened nationalism,” which will involve each nation’s viewing itself as a moral community with an obligation to see to the welfare of its existing population, maintaining the standard of living of its own people.  Regional trading zones should come into being, but only among comparable economies; and tariffs should be used to insulate the firms and workers of the advanced economies from the ravages of competing with dirt-cheap labor in global trade.  It is to be a nationalism that harbors no desire to dominate others; in place of a Wilsonian drive to remake the world, there will be a willingness to allow each people to seek its own cultural and economic life in its own way.

            The Great Betrayal is accordingly both radical and profoundly conservative. The need to consider its ideas will become increasingly apparent with the growing impact of global trade.

            What should be noted, however, is that much more will be needed.  Even though Buchanan sees farther and deeper than most of his contemporaries, even that won’t be enough.  It is as though he is an observer on an island who sees one tidal wave coming, but does not yet see that a second, even larger wave is approaching from the island’s other side.  It will be necessary to plan for both, and what is done for one, even though vitally important and valuable in itself, won’t be sufficient for the other.  In the world of the near-future, a wave that will be even larger than low-cost Third World labor is the non-labor-intensive technology that is now arising out of computers, robots and biotechnology.    Both low-cost labor and near-workerless technology will be marvelous in their production of goods and services, but each will vastly undercut incomes from wages, which is what the overwhelming majority of people depend upon.  The point to notice is that near-workerless technology will multiply even (or most especially) within advanced economies, with the effect that insulation of those economies from lowly-paid foreign labor will not protect their wage earners.  This portends its own crisis of incomes and distribution, with enormous inequalities that will have little or nothing to do with individuals’ willingness to work.

            Adherents of all social philosophies—including those who wish most purely to embrace a free market—will have to face up to the coming crisis of the wage system.  Further down the trail, even the most ardent individualist will find that free markets and economic nationalism will have to have added to them a broad-based distribution of economic product.  The result will be a new form of social and economic system.


                                                                                              Dwight D. Murphey