It’s true: the middle-class is growing, globally. Here in the U.S., we keep hearing dire warnings about a shrinking middle class, but not across the globe. Alan Murray, president of The Pew Research Center, says the world is
witnessing its third great surge of middle-class growth. The first was brought about in the 19th century by the Industrial Revolution; the second surge came in the years following World War II. Both unfolded primarily in the United States and Europe.
While those undergoing this change to middle-class standing have aspirations for technology and education, the values of this burgeoning middle class probably aren’t going to look very American.
The all-too-easy assumption in the West has been that these new entrants to the middle-class club will embrace the same values their predecessors did. But evidence on that is mixed.
Many hoped the “Arab Spring” would mean progress toward adopting Western ideas about democracy and human rights. But subsequent events in Egypt—with the recent protests fueled largely by middle-class discontent—revealed how tenuous such hopes may be. Pew surveys in Egypt show that there is public support for democratic rights and institutions, but less support for notions like women’s rights, a civilian-controlled military, and the separation of religion and government. Throughout the Arab world, our research based on available public records shows that the Arab uprisings have led to more restrictions on religion, not fewer.
China, of course, has the largest would-be middle class, but personal freedom (which ranks high in the United States’ middle class) isn’t as important for the Chinese.
All of this comes at a time when the U.S. can’t seem to figure out if the middle class is disappearing here or not. The Huffington Post says it is, with all sorts of charts and graphs to back up the claim, using words and phrases like “fearful” and “unable to maintain their standard of living.” The Brookings Institute, on the other hand, is vehement that the middle class in America is just fine, thank you:
In the national debate about opportunity and inequality, people tend to talk about opportunity as if it were an omnipotent cosmic force imposed on Americans by a vicious capitalist economy, the effects of which are ignored by our uncaring government. But opportunity in America depends largely on decisions made by people who are free actors.
It’s good to keep in mind that economic growth and the personal freedom that it typically brings are good things, whether they happen in Milwaukee or Malaysia. People need to be reminded that the global economy is not a zero-sum game, a fixed pie with only so many slices to go around. As Acton’s Director of Research, Samuel Gregg, points out,
One of the big fallacies, economic fallacies that flows from the Zero Sum Game is the way that you start to think about people. You stop thinking about them as potential creators. Instead, you start thinking about them as just mere mouths. What that means, of course, is that you start looking at human beings and seeing them as a burden, rather than something that can be inherently created.
The hope is that countries (like China, with its one-child policy still firmly in place) will begin to understand this notion, and that a real growth – of human creativity, empowerment and freedom – will be allowed to take place.