When I was growing up in Lima in the 1970s, Western visitors were astonished by the shantytowns, the barriadas, as they were known, that ringed that grimy city. Why, they asked, did people leave the countryside to live in these squalid slums? Why swap the pure air of the Andes for traffic fumes and sewage?
It was a very First World question. No Peruvian ever asked why people were quitting villages that lacked electricity and clean water. The barriadas may have been ugly, but they were humming with enterprise. They offered work, access to schools and clinics, a power supply. They were, for most of their denizens, transitional, a staging post between mountain squalor and something better.
In time, I came to realize that Western nose-wrinkling at developed countries was more esthetic than sympathetic. As the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope put it, "Poverty, to be scenic, should be rural."
Western attitudes haven't advanced much since then. My kids' geography homework is full of stories about evil Western corporations exploiting poor women in Vietnam or wherever. Now, you and I would not want to work in a Vietnamese sweatshop. But we have not spent our lives bending our backs in rice paddies.
Employees of foreign-owned companies in Vietnam earn 210 percent of the average wage. The readiness of that country to open itself to trade and investment has brought huge benefits to the Vietnamese, including those on the lowest incomes. Over 19 years, the West struggled to defeat totalitarian socialism in Vietnam, and failed. Three decades of trade have achieved what 60,000 American lives and over a trillion dollars in today's prices in military spending failed to achieve: the end of Communism.
Developing countries which open their markets eliminate poverty more quickly than those which don't. Compare Vietnam to Myanmar, or Colombia to Venezuela, or Bangladesh to Pakistan. A study of developing states since 1980 showed that those which had joined the global trading system enjoyed annual growth at an average of 5 percent, as against 1.5 percent for those which hadn't.
Yet still, the fear remains in many of these states that economic liberalization means surrendering to multinationals. Where Donald Trump frets about free trade undercutting high-wage nations, they have precisely the converse fear. As the trade minister of a Caribbean state told me last month: "We have high rates of poverty and illiteracy. If we let you guys in without restrictions, you'll eat us for breakfast."
She was wrong for the same reason that President Trump is wrong. Trade allows both parties to specialize. The poor Caribbean islands get to sell more stuff, which creates more jobs. The United States, buying that stuff more cheaply, moves up the production chain and also gets richer. As productivity in the Caribbean states rises, so do wages. The Trumpian fear that poor countries will somehow become more technologically advanced while holding their wages down is baseless: it has never happened anywhere.
Liberalization works every time. Look at India since 1991, or China since 1979 — or, before that, at Singapore, South Korea, Chile. So why don't others follow?
Much of the answer has to do with politics. Right-of-center parties in many less developed countries are both oligarchic and autocratic. They are aware of the inequalities of wealth in their nations, and believe that the only way to appeal to a poor and often badly-educated electorate is through bribery in the form of public works, or else through nationalism.
They are wrong. You don't have to be rich or educated to grasp that fewer government officials and less form-filling will make a country less corrupt. The handful of politicians brave enough to offer that formula — Colombia's Alvaro Uribe, for example — were richly rewarded at the polls.
Our challenge now is to take that formula elsewhere — to make the case for free markets to the people who stand to gain the most from them, namely the 70 percent of human beings who can't yet afford washing machines.
President Uribe and I will be in Miami on May 27-28 to launch Conservatives International, an initiative aimed at formulating a capitalism for the little guy, a conservatism that can appeal to the majority of people on the planet. Also speaking are the former Spanish prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who is doing wonderful work on how to regularize property rights in poor countries, Gov. Rick Scott and leading politicians and think-tankers from all over the world. Why not join us? You can register at conservativesinternational.org.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.