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William Watson: ‘I, Ballpoint’ misses the point—at least a little

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You live long enough you really do see everything.

I hold in my hands my copy of the Little Red Book, quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, which I bought sometime in the late 1960s for the very reasonable price, the inner flap says, of 50 cents ($3.49 in $2016, the Bank of Canada Inflation Calculator tells me).

What can I say? I was a teenager. Rebellion was in the air. And Mao had a very good press in those days, though mainly because China was, as was often said at the time, like the far side of the moon—no one in the West had the slightest idea what was going on there.

The Little Red Book first came out in 1966. It features a touching, stylishly handwritten invocation from Lin Piao, soon to be named Mao’s official successor: “Study Chairman Mao’s writings, follow his teachings and act according to his instructions.” Lin himself evidently didn’t take his own advice sufficiently to heart for he died in a mysterious plane crash in 1971, supposedly on his way to exile in the Soviet Union after an aborted assassination/coup attempt against Mao. (Lin Piao was his name under the old Wade-Giles Romanization system. Under the pinyin system, invented by Zhou Youguang, who died on January 14 the day after turning 104, he is Lin Biao, while Mao is Mao Zedung. Pinyin was adopted in China in 1958 and in the West in the 1980s.)

I can’t remember if I got all the way through the Little Red Book’s 312 little white pages. I was pretty dogged in my youth so maybe I did. It’s not very rousing stuff: “In studying a problem, we must shun subjectivity, one-sidedness and superficiality,” which is true enough but doesn’t exactly sing. As you’d expect, the book is very heavy on Marxism: “If the U.S. monopoly capitalist groups persist in pushing their policies of aggression and war, the day is bound to come when they will be hanged by the people of the whole world.” Maybe that day will come. But it’s looking increasingly likely it won’t.

In fact, now, a half-century later, the People’s Republic of China sends its president, Xi Jinping, who is still unelected, to the notorious bourgeois haven of Davos, Switzerland, to hobnob with many of America’s and the world’s monopoly capitalists and, of all things, to defend globalization and trade—capitalist commerce—against growing opposition from people and governments in supposedly capitalist countries. From the Little Red Book to defending commerce in Davos in a half-century is not quite as big a leap as from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base in 66 years, but it’s not nothing.

Even more surprising, China’s cheerleading for international trade is juxtaposed with squeamishness about free trade from the new president of the United States, the main driver since the Second World War of successive waves of trade liberalization first through the GATT and then the WTO, both of which the U.S. was instrumental in setting up. America’s reversal on trade makes you not believe in progress.

The Wall Street Journal’s David Feith countered President Xi this week with a lovely piece on China’s latest industrial-policy triumph, figuring out how to make a complete ballpoint pen in-country. Until a government-led initiative achieved this new victory for mercantilism, the stumbling block to self-sufficiency was the actual ball, which apparently requires high-grade machining that until recently could only be done in Germany and a few other places. But now China can do it, too, thanks to that country’s leaders, who, Feith writes, continue to “fetishize a kind of autarky that politicizes the allocation of capital, prevents economic reform and creates tensions with foreign trade partners.”

He nailed his argument by referring to Leonard Read’s classic 1958 paean to the price system, I, Pencil, which shows how markets make possible the in fact hopelessly complex task of putting together even a simple thing like a pencil from raw materials. When we do have markets, aiming at self-sufficiency is deep, deep error. Maybe Feith’s piece will come to be known as “I, Ballpoint.”

In the end, though, as delightful as it is, “I, Ballpoint” seems to me to miss the point. Yes, the Chinese do cheat on their free-trade obligations. I don’t know of any country, the U.S. included, not even virtuous Canada, that doesn’t in some way try to harass imports and boost exports. Some countries, usually the bigger ones because all the others are so deferential to them, are especially good at it. Right now, China may well be the biggest cheater. Be that as it may, China’s great economic success since dumping Maoism is not primarily from cheating on free trade agreements. It’s from unleashing the creative power of its billion-plus people through markets.

From the dark side of the moon in the 1960s to defending trade in Davos today is a big step for China and, you might say, a Great Leap Forward for mankind.


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