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The Commanding Heights
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The Commanding Heights

Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy is a book by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, first published as The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace That Is Remaking the Modern World in 1998. In 2002, it was turned into a documentary of the same title, and later released on DVD.

Commanding Heights attempts to trace the rise of free markets during the last century, as well as the process of globalization. It takes its title from a speech by Vladimir Lenin, who used the phrase "commanding heights" to refer to the segments and industries in an economy that effectively control and support the others, such as oil, railroads, banking and steel.

The authors take the thesis that, prior to World War I, the world effectively lived in a state of globalization, which they term the "First Era of Globalization."

The authors define globalization as periods where free markets predominate, and countries place few if any limits on imports, exports, immigration and exchanges of information. Overall, they see globalization as a positive movement that improves the standard of living for all the people connected to it, from the richest to poorest.

According to the authors, the rise of fascism and communism, not to mention the Great Depression, nearly extinguished capitalism, which rapidly lost popularity.

After World War II, the authors believe the work of economist John Maynard Keynes came to be widely accepted in Western economies. Keynes believed in government regulation of the economy, and the authors underline this as Keynes' great influence and prestige. In the authors' opinion, these so-called "commanding heights" were often owned or severely regulated by governments in accordance with Keynes' ideas.

The authors then discuss how the political change of the 1980s ushered in a change of economic policy. The old trend changed when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of the United Kingdom, and when Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. Both these leaders parted ways with Keynesian economics. Rather, they were more in the tradition of the work of Friedrich von Hayek, who opposed government regulation, tariffs, and other infringements on a pure free market, and Milton Friedman, who emphasized the futility of using inflationary monetary policies to influence rates of economic growth.

While Thatcher, Reagan, and their successors made sweeping reforms, the authors argue that the current era of globalization finally began around 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, they argue, countries embracing free markets have prospered on the whole, while those adhering to central planning have failed.

While strongly in favor of this trend, the authors worry that globalization will not last. More specifically, they believe that if inequality in economic growth remains high, and if Third World nations are not offered the proper opportunities and incentives to support capitalism, the movement will end just as the first era did.

The reason the authors place so much emphasis on narrowing economic gaps is because they believe, against many of the people they interview, that there is no ideological support for capitalism, only the pragmatic fact that the system works better than any other. As they remark:

The market also requires something else: legitimacy. But here it faces an ethical conundrum. It is based upon contracts, rules, and choice -- in short, on self-restraint -- which contrasts mightily with other ways of organizing economic activity. Yet a system that takes the pursuit of self-interest and profit as its guiding light does not necessarily satisfy the yearning in the human soul for belief and some higher meaning beyond materialism. In the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, Republican soldiers are said to have died with the word "Stalin" on their lips. Their idealized vision of Soviet communism, however misguided, provided justification for their ultimate sacrifice. Few people would die with the words "free markets" on their lips.

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