Tuesday, January 03, 2006

‘Unelected thieves and warlords’ as the Barrier to Development

In The Economist, 24 December (I have just gottten round to reading it as it was hidden underneath the MBA exam scripts I was grading over Christmas and New Year) there is an interesting article (unsigned as is the paper’s policy): “The mountain man and the surgeon: reflections on relative poverty in North America and Africa”, which contains these observations:

Why juxtapose the lives of a poor man in a rich country and a relatively well-off man in a poor one? The exercise is useful for two reasons. First, it puts the rich world’s wealth into context. A Congolese doctor, a man most other Congolese would consider wealthy, is worse off materially than most poor people in America. That itself is striking.”

Is it? Adam Smith wrote about his impressions in mid-18th century Britain of the relative material wealth of the common labourer and the ‘wealthiest’ ‘kings or princes’ in North America and Africa:

“… without the assistance and cooperation of thousands, the very meanest person in a civilised country could not be provided, even according to, what we falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated. Compared, indeed, with the extravagant luxury of the great, his accommodation must no doubt appear extremely simple and easy; and yet it my be true, perhaps, that the accommodation of a European prince does not always exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant, and as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages.”


(Wealth of Nations, I.i.11: pp23-4; and cf. Lectures in Jurisprudence, LJ(A)vi.21, 23: pp 338-9: ‘Indian prince’ ; LJ(B) 212, p. 489: ‘chief of a savage nation’).

Elsewhere The Economist article states:

And all we can say is that whereas the poor in Kinshasa complain about the price of bread, the poor in Kentucky complain about the price of motor insurance.”

And:

if poor Americans were to compare their standard of living with what is normal elsewhere in the world, let alone Congo, they would see that have little cause for discontent. Then again, were Americans not so incurably discontented with their lot, their great country would not be half as dynamic as it is.”

This fits neatly into Smith’s view that the main driver for work and enterprise is the desire to better oneself:

The uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition, the principle from which public and national, as well as private opulence was originally derived, is frequently powerful enough to maintain the natural progress of things, toward improvement, in spite of the extravagance of government, and the greatest errors of administration. Like the unknown principle of animal life, it restores health and vigour to the constitution, in spite, not only of the disease, but of the absurd prescriptions of the doctor.” (WN II.iii.31: p. 343)

Smith did not allow for the likes of the despotic grasping greed of Mobuto Sese Seko's tyrannical rule of the Congo, who managed to steal of $5 billion (at least!) from his country and stash it in bank accounts in Europe. The same urge for ‘self-betterment’ has benign and malign effects, and unintended consequences. Such access to rich spoils makes African countries, no matter how impoverished their general populations, a tempting target for ruthless armed men. In the Congo from 1998 to 2003, about three million people died in a civil war among ‘half a dozen armies and dozens of militia groups fighting over the gold and diamond mines’, with sporadic fighting continuing in the east of the country.

Congo is run ‘by a mob of unelected thieves and warlords’ whose objective is to continue milking western donors’. Below them are countless numbers of corrupt functionaries, leaning on the public for bribes and ‘taxes’, and, who, among other atrocities to the human spirit of the self-betterment of their victims, contribute immensely to the erosion and disruption of enterprise from the ground upwards.

No amount of western ‘donations’ of aid will have the slightest effect while these malformations of the state continue in the Congo. You can only ‘make poverty history’ by making its causes history. It is the absence of a wealth creating force in the country left free to do its work over long periods that will eradicate poverty. All the rest is myopic hypocrisy and collusion with the ‘unelected thieves and warlords’, and their imitators throughout Congolese society, whose watchword is ‘all for themselves’ and nothing for the self-betterment of their victims.

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