In the midst of a pandemic when nobody goes anywhere, our experiences with “Somewhere” have been re-awakened. And it prompted me to finish this much-talked-about best-seller from 2017: David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics.
Part virtue signaling, part dispassionate social analysis, part political proposals, the book was one of the first big stories to describe the hidden divides of, primarily, British society. Hidden, because until the double shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump we – the well-educated, inner-city lot who make our living by churning words (journalists, academics, lawyers, politicians, media profiles) – had not really seen them.
The Somewheres, according to Goodhart, are those who are rooted to their geographical communities, value security and group attachment, and lack qualifications or education to up-and-leave for greener turfs if the local job market isn’t delivering for them. They are frustrated over a world that left them behind and a society that changed faster than they could keep up. Brexit voters and Trump fans usually fit the description, though the exact demarcations are fuzzy. Somewheres are people who feel like Britain (or America) is becoming a foreign country, that British (American) values are both eroded and ignored, that some part of their own quality of life is destroyed when the composition of society changes – particularly regarding immigration.
Anywheres, in contrast, are those who “see the world from ‘Anywhere,’” the globalists who belong to everywhere and nowhere, as comfortable navigating the streets of Sydney as the beaches of Sussex or South Florida. They’re highly educated and care deeply about The World and its issues. They dominate politics and business and news; they make all the shows and harbor the wokest of opinions.
The divide is naturally somewhat forced. It depicts ideal types rather than identifiable people; it leaves a lot of people meekly a bit of both, unimaginatively named In-Betweeners. Beyond the first few chapters when the Anywhere-Somewhere distinction has been established, the book is not much more than a rehashing of the same idea with different topics in mind (education, family, globalization, immigration).
A lot of people seem to be at least familiar with the main gist of the divide that Goodhart identifies, even though few have probably taken the time to read it. It’s not an easy read – not because the topic is boring but because the delivery and the thin reasoning is. Goodhart’s writing isn’t exactly captivating, his hashing out of survey statistics dull and unenthusiastic. Numerous times I put it down, longingly reaching for something – anything – else.
The deepest fault line he sees is the attitude to, and experience of, openness – particularly immigration and free trade as the most visible aspects of globalization. Anywheres have experienced this as a bonanza to human flourishing of human welfare and culture. Globalization has allowed poverty-ridden peoples worldwide to improve their livelihood through high-paying manufacturing plants opening in their region or the ability to earn triple wages in London. Somewheres see their communities disintegrate when the local factory outsourced production and a Polish family moved in next door.
The villain? Globalist free trade policies shoved down the throat of unwilling Brits. In New York Times journalist Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour from last year, those policies were ushered in by unscrupulous economists. Dani Rodrik’s The Globalization Paradox made similar claims. They all advance fashionable anti-free trade arguments: rather than helping everyone, free trade and globalization made factory workers in Pennsylvania and aluminum smelters in the Ohio River Valley redundant. With their jobs gone their communities decayed, contributing to all kinds of social misery best illustrated in Anne Case and Angus Deaton‘s Deaths of Despair.
The response to this is by now standard. Economists never said that free trade benefits everyone, everywhere, all the time. That wouldn’t be progress, Steven Pinker compellingly argued in Enlightenment Now! – “that would be a miracle.” Clearly, a tariff propping up an inefficiently run domestic factory benefits the owners and workers in that factory. But it comes at the expense of consumers purchasing their products (or consumers that could have purchased them at lower, world market prices). What economists have argued since Ricardo and before is that the gains to the winners exceed the losses to the losers – formally named the compensation principle in welfare economics. Maybe, as Goodhart asserts, politicians in the West have some special responsibility for the welfare of their citizens over the citizens of other nations, but they surely don’t have a special responsibility to some of their constituents over others. Failing to compensate losers is a call to compensate them – not up the trade barriers.
Another point is the assessment of winners and losers. There’s no God-given law that the American Rust Belt ought to manufacture certain products. Ironically enough, two years before releasing The Economists’ Hour, Appelbaum expertly described the American aluminum industry’s move to Iceland. Cheap, reliable thermal and hydroelectric electricity and a deep-water port outside Reyðarfjörður induced the American steel giant Alcoa to set up a massive aluminum smelter. Appelbaum recounts the story of Olafur Gunnarsson, an employee at the works who after zigzagging various jobs following the collapse of the town’s formerly thriving fishing industry found steady and valuable employment at the smelter. “The best thing that happened to this town,” Appelbaum cites him as saying.
The jobs that disappeared in the American Rust Belt and the decaying communities that relied on them have their counterparts elsewhere in the world. The Icelandic story is remarkable because it involves an affluent Western (white?) worker in heavy industries who gained an industrial job. Because of globalized trade relocating there, a formerly struggling community is now thriving. If the myriad of such stories we have from Indonesia or Vietnam or China don’t count, what about this dawdling Icelandic fishing village?
These are excellent examples of Bastiat’s Seen and the Unseen: we see the (concentrated) damage in the ghost towns of Ohio or rural Pennsylvania, but we don’t notice the Asian families emerging in troves from extreme poverty – or the similarly decaying Icelandic community raised from the ashes by an American company outsourcing.
Most people schooled in economics read this from a strictly economic point of view: produce things where they create most value for consumers, which means take advantage of cheap, clean and available energy for energy-intensive industries. But even if we were to take the broader societal impacts into account that Goodhart, Appelbaum, Deaton, or Dani Rodrik implore us to do, the conclusion doesn’t follow. How is an American worker or community worth protecting over numerous other Chinese, Indian or Vietnamese workers’ much worse despair? Or indeed, a decaying Icelandic fishing village? What is so special about American rural towns’ manufacturing work that other American consumers must be barred from buying cheaper (and better?) foreign stuff?
Many other claims about “British” or “American” interest in Goodhart’s book are confused. The presence of foreign workers, he argues, leads to lower wages for domestic Brits and reduced investment in training staff. He thinks that’s “negative for society as a whole.” But being passed over for promotion or losing your job to an Eastern European doesn’t make “society” worse off, it makes me worse off – but the guy who gets it and the employer have gained.
Economic actions often have negative external effects; indeed, any dynamic economy must have, such as when a newly established pizza place drains revenue from an old one, or when innovations shift consumer preferences away from technological incumbents. That doesn’t make them bad for society – on the contrary.
It’s easy to find Goodhart discussing diverging interests between Anywheres and Somewheres, educated and uneducated, young and old. But somehow, once the topic turns to tariffs, trade, and migration, globalization is criticized because it doesn’t involve “British interests.” How is it that domestic groups so at odds with one another’s worldviews that they couldn’t even comprehend that the other voted for or against Brexit still have a common British interest?
In at least one way I heartily agree with Goodhart, but it doesn’t take him where he thinks it does. “Societies,” he writes, “are composed of groups of people who come from somewhere, who speak a certain language, have certain traditions and ways of doing things.” Somehow, that’s supposed to bind all Brits together.
The emphasis on language fuels my prior belief: language is the ultimate foundation of culture. Knowing how to file your taxes, how Parliament works, what art and music and historical events shaped a country’s past are comparatively peripheral things. Sure, they help to establish cultural bonds, but foreigners can easily learn those things yet still wouldn’t become part of your nation. What does, is language; if you speak my accent, if you use the same expressions I do, if you curse like I do, you’re my tribe.
But language, broadly speaking, doesn’t tie Brits together: English is spoken across the world. More narrowly, while a Glaswegian, a Midlander and a posh Oxbridge graduate all speak English, the group identity and sense of belonging they signal are entirely different. In most places of the world, we don’t need to move far to encounter that same stark linguistic divide: while technically the same language, what their speakers clearly signal is their difference from one another – that they do not form part of the same group.
Goodhart frequently emphasizes that the trends in opinion that he reports are not figments of his imagination, but real opinions held by real people. That much seems accurate, and as a description of British political beliefs, his book makes useful contributions. He has failed to show why the fact that some people are convinced by hollow and harmful ideas make them valid, coherent, defensible, legitimate, or respectable. Some things just don’t hold up, no matter your tribe.