Saturday, July 3, 2010

Barack Obama and the Cruise Ship Theory of Underdevelopment: A Formula for...Permanent Underdevelopment

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By Barry Rubin

In his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, Barack H. Obama gives the kind of anecdote that really appeals to a 20-year-old radical but is sort of scary if still rattling around in the mind of a U.S.president. The passage claimed in intense anger and disgust a that a luxury cruise liner throws away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital see in a year. 

Waste is a disturbing thing. But Obama told this story as exemplifying the problem of global injustice and Third World poverty. Thus, he was expressing the idea that Third World poverty is caused by First World greed. When Obama was a radical student, this theory was called the development of underdevelopment.  Of course, one does not want to take a phrase from Obama and blow it out of proportion, yet this standpoint does seem to reflect his more general perception and the political philosophy of radical Third World dictatorships as well.

Underdevelopment is not, according to this view, created by the lack of social, intellectual, economic and other development of Third World countries but by rapacious imperialism. The problem is not that countries haven't advanced enough but that they were being held back by a conspiracy by the West to keep them down. This is a tenable argument when historic imperialism held sway but the attempt to keep this excuse going decades later ("post-imperialism") is becoming increasingly hollow in reality as it becomes stronger in academic and political thinking.

Now of course there are cases of looting resources during the colonial period to the point that a country is seriously injured. The Belgian Congo would seem a good example. With renewable resources or those developed for the long term like oil, however, this is less of a problem. If one goes country by country, it is hard to think of cases where underdevelopment today is due largely to past imperialist exploitation even if this was a contributory factor.

The real "sin" of the West was actually industrial progress. That's why it has the infrastructure, factories, inventions that made it rich. But now, of course, even a country like China shows that with organization and hard work (not even a lot of political freedom in that case) dramatic progress is possible.

That's why the cruise ship theory of poverty is so dangerous. It tells people that they don't have to do anything but demand a redistribution of wealth from abroad rather than carry out a social transformation at home. It encourages them toward demagoguery, war, and passivity that thus continues poverty. Indeed, coupled with multiculturalism--all cultures are equal and therefore one cannot say that some have negative effects on liberty and living standards--this is a formula for guaranteeing the continuity of suffering and failure.

In comparison to the cruise ship theory two other theories far better explain the problem of underdevelopment and what needs to be done to solve it.

First, is politics, the system governing countries. Third World elites, both traditional and radical, have been ripping off their own people, often behind radical, "liberationist" slogans. They steal the nation's wealth, make money from selling rights to foreign companies, and pocket international aid.  If foreign cruise ships throw away food it doesn't affect Third World countries. Indeed, since the food might have been bought from that source it potentially profits them. But when their own rulers live lavishly and throw away food it does contribute to their impoverishment because they paid for that food.

During the Cold War, the complaint was that these were backed by the West, but now the dictatorships of the world receive little such support. They are often among the most vocal expressing radical demands and insisting on reparations...that will go into their Swiss bank accounts.

Thus, radical Third World regimes often become the biggest advocates of the cruise ship theory, which essentially is a con-game to fleece the more developed countries. Paying them off out of Western guilt or leftist ideology the developed world isn't doing the masses any favor. On the contrary, this helps the regimes causing the problem to stay in power. After decades of aid, loans, and other pay-offs, countries like this are as bad off as they ever have been.

Consider how Western pity for Gazans ensures they will have to live under a radical repressive Islamist regime that is going to wage new wars where they will be the losers. Indeed, it is the central theme of the Hamas government, like other Islamist regimes, that living standards take second place to the divine-dictated struggle they want to pursue.

(That doesn't mean there aren't greedy people in the Iranian elite, nor development-oriented efforts yet these may always be sacrificed. As Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's upheavel, put it, the revolution wasn't made to lower the price of watermelons.)

The solution for a situation in which a country's regime, through greed or ideology or both, is holding it back is a political change that brings down the old elites without replacing them with the exact same kind of regime and people. That's where democracy can, but doesn't always, make a contribution toward improving the situation.

There was once a Communist cartoon that explains the situation rather well. It showed a fat plutocrat lyig in a hammock. One end is held up by tree, the other by a spindly, sweating peasant. The former is saying, "Do you know what those Communists want to do? They want to steal our tree!"

But one can substitute in the hammock a left-wing ideologue, Arab nationalist, or Islamist ruler and the same rule applies. And just as the solution isn't Communism, it also isn't giving First World pay-offs to make the oppressors fatter but rather creating a political system allowing and even encouraging the planting and growing of lots more trees and hammocks.

There are few more useful images in this vein than the saying: If you give a man a fish he eats for a day. If you teach a man how to fish he can feed himself. Providing a rod and reel is also helpful if that isn't seized by the state fishing authority or sold abroad with the proceeds going into the ruler's Swiss bank account.

And that brings us to the equally important second factor: social and economic change of the right kind that gets a country on the road to development. This involves enough freedom, certain types of laws, an adequate banking and credit system, free enterprise with reasonable regulation, education, and many other institutions and processes.

A reasonably regulated capitalism may be the best way to develop though, if private capital is lacking, there are at least temporary socialist solutions. Turkey and Israel are two examples of this that come to mind, though China shows that even "Communism" can be "successful" if it allows a lot of free-enterprise, too). What is really clear, though is that statism is poison to progress.

Often a certain amount of waste, exploitation, and income inequality is necessary, too. Marx looked at nineteenth-century Britain and saw a dead end leading to revolution. In fact, the system grew and changed so well that such countries produced unprecedented wealth and well-being.

Above all, the main point is that to become rich requires not loud complaining but hard work, flexible organization, the unleashing of individual citizens' talents not crushed under a huge governmental apparatus, and clever innovation. Those that show some talent at this--countries as diverse as South Korea, Singapore, China, and Chile, to name a few--are making real progress. (China's secret seems to be coupling a lot of economic freedom with the bare minimum of political flexibility to let things work.)

But those who whine about their suffering and demand others pay and subsidize them aren't going anywhere good. Rather they deflect the desire for a better life into a desire for a bigger struggle against better-off countries. The result: stagnation. Money given to them is poured into a bottomless pit, since the local regimes have pulled out the stopper and connected the drainpipe directly into their own bank accounts.

Does Obama deep down believe the cruise ship theory? True, he has called on Africa, for example, to do better at hard work. But his ideology, rhetoric, and policies invite blaming-the-West and reward those (like Venezuela and Brazil, for instance) that do so. The idea of paying off other countries to buy pollution rights must be the craziest idea in this vein ever presented by a Western leader.

I have heard more than one Arab intellectual recount that on a visit to Asian countries that have prospered, he asked, "How did you succeed after such dreadful imperialist exploitation of your country."

The answer was along the lines of, "We got over it." Those that luxuriate in their victimhood and have those attitudes reinforced by supposedly well-meaning Westerners don't get over it, and they don't get anywhere.

Part of the problem with cruise-ship theory, in comparison not only to capitalism but even traditional mainstream socialist views, is that it is based on a zero-sum game. There is only so much wealth and if anyone has something it is because that was taken away from someone else. Given this fact, the cruise-ship statists argue that the redistribution of wealth is the most important--and indeed the only--way to get social justice.

In comparison, capitalist and democratic socialist (even Communist) thinking has been that wealth must be greatly expanded. What has changed this for cruise-ship thinkers is a narrow environmentalism and technological pessimism that assumes humanity has reached its limit.

I will leave it to you, gentle readers, to say whether the Obama Administration of Third World development has some relationship to its domestic policies. Those are not issues that I write about.

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