The Globalization of Human Well‐​Being

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Controversy over globalization has focusedmainly on whether it exacerbates income inequalitybetween the rich and the poor. But, as opponents ofglobalization frequently note, human well-being isnot synonymous with wealth. The central issue,therefore, is not whether income gaps are growingbut whether globalization advances well-being and,if inequalities in well-being have expanded, whetherthat is because the rich have advanced at theexpense of the poor.

More direct measures of human well-beingthan per capita income include freedom fromhunger, mortality rates, child labor, education,access to safe water, and life expectancy. Thoseindicators generally advance with wealth, becausewealth helps create and provide the means toimprove them. In turn, those improvements canstimulate economic growth by creating conditionsconducive to technological change andincreasing productivity. Thus, wealth, technologicalchange, and well-being reinforce each other ina virtuous cycle of progress.

During the last half century, as wealth andtechnological change advanced worldwide, sodid the well-being of the vast majority of theworld's population. Today's average person liveslonger and is healthier, more educated, less hungry,and less likely to have children in the work-force.Moreover, gaps in these critical measuresof well-being between the rich countries and themiddle- or low-income groups have generallyshrunk dramatically since the mid-1900s irrespectiveof trends in income inequality. However,where those gaps have shrunk the least or evenexpanded recently, the problem is not too muchglobalization but too little.

The rich are not better off because they havetaken something away from the poor; rather, thepoor are better off because they benefit from thetechnologies developed by the rich, and their situationwould have improved further had they beenbetter able to capture the benefits of globalization.A certain level of global inequality may even benefitthe poor as rich countries develop and invest inmore expensive medicines and technologies thatthen become affordable to the poor.

Indur M. Goklany

Indur Goklany is an independent scholar and the author of The Precautionary Principle: A Critical Appraisal of Environmental Risk Assessment (Cato Institute, 2001) and Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution (Cato Institute, 1999).