The World Is Flat

by Thomas L. Friedman

Start Free Trial

Does Friedman present a balanced assessment of the current and future situation in "The World Is Flat"? What assumptions does he make and what evidence does he use?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Friedman does not present a balanced and accurate assessment of the current and future situation. The benefits of globalization and free trade accelerate the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few that already possess large internationally mobile capital often at the expense of the developed world's middle class and working class. The extreme disparities of wealth that result predictably lead to domestic political tensions between the globalist few that can buy representation in government and everyone else who sees their incomes and opportunities stagnate or decline. This predictably leads to destabilizing popular revolts of the kind we now see in the United States and Europe where wealth disparities have surpassed the extremes of the Gilded Age. It also leads to greater international tensions as seen in the Thucydides gap between the hegemonic United States and rising industrial power of China.

Friedman assumes that because voluntary free trade must lead to positive-sum gains for both traders, it must always be beneficial. He ignores the role played by relative gains and the fact that free trade can lead to net negative outcomes for nations. For example, in the famous example of free trade between wine producing Portugal and wool producing England, it is mathematically true that each country benefits in the short term from specialization and free trade. In the long run, however, the relative profits from trade are much larger for England whose power looms increase output by 40 times. Portugal has no equivalent technology that can increase the output of its vines. In the long-run England's capitalists simply used their much larger profits to buy out the Portuguese wine industry leaving Portugal worse off from free trade. Now England has locked in absolute gains and Portugal absolute losses in national income. Friedman seems oblivious to the international economics of increasing returns to scale which make such win/lose or zero-sum long-run national outcomes inevitable under free trade.

Friedman argues that the losers of globalization and free trade should be compensated by redistribution from the winners despite the fact that this has never occurred and is wholly unrealistic in practice. He argues that education is another solution ignoring the evidence that labor dislocations in regions with industries uprooted by globalization are long-lasting. The idea that older industrial workers are going to find work as software engineers and programmers in sunrise industries is ludicrous as anyone with experience in Silicon Valley knows they prefer to import low-cost H1b visa workers from India.

The peace argument that Friedman rehashes from the 19th-century is equally fallacious. The interconnecting supply chains and trade links of European nations in the early 20th century did not prevent them from fighting two destructive world wars. These wars were partly due to the Thucydides trap of a declining industrial leader Great Britain being overtaken by a rising industrial rival, Germany. Britain's free trade policy did not protect her from war, but it did accelerate her de-industrialization as free trade is now accelerating the de-industrialization of the United States and the transfer of U.S. plant and technology to China.

Americans and Europeans on the left and right are increasingly demanding the return to a more moderate globalization and trade regime that prioritizes and maintains widely held prosperity for all members of society. Friedman apparently did not foresee the inevitable backlash that his unfettered globalization and free trade was bound to unleash.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

1. Do you think Friedman presents a balanced and accurate assessment of the current and future situation?

Friedman attempts to be balanced by describing the negative effects of globalization, including technology falling into the wrong hands (terrorists, etc.) and third-world countries without access to the technologies which would incorporate them into this new, flat world. He neglects, however, to mention the effects on the environment caused by technology, mass production, and disposal of hazardous substances which these technologies cause. He also does not consider in this book the fact that outsourcing can be the catalyst for exploitation of employees, sometimes children, when companies outsource to "cheap" countries with loose labor laws. Friedman in general shows many pros and cons to globalization, but is not completely accurate when he leaves certain things out.

2. What are the key assumptions he makes?

One of Friedman's major assumptions is that "anyone can do it." He interviews, almost exclusively, people with major entrepreneurial success stories or high-level executives of major technology companies. He is extremely optimistic, believing in an idealized edition of our world. He also assumes that anything labeled "free-market" is a positive thing, although there are examples in history of "free-market" ideas ending very poorly, and of technological advances made while their leaders refused to take a "free-market" stance, such as the Japanese company Toyota, which used to be a monopoly of sorts.

3. What kinds of evidence does he use for his arguments? 

Friedman uses ten "flatteners" to back up his arguments on globalization. These include the collapse of the Berlin Wall (which symbolized the end of the Cold War and coincided with the unveiling of the basic PC, which allowed people all over the world to communicate with one another), the inventions of Netscape, and workflow software, the abilities to upload original content, outsource and insource services, offshore manufacturing, supply chains, information services like Google and Wikipedia, and what he refers to as "steroids:" file sharing, wireless devices, MP3 music players, messaging, and the general digitization of previously analog services.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial