Imagine a South Africa that is the most prosperous country on earth. Hard to imagine perhaps, yet South Africa can become that country within the lifetimes of those born today.
To become prosperous, individuals have to create wealth, which requires production and trade. At the most basic level of existence, simply to survive, individuals have to work by growing or finding or hunting for food. In order to advance from subsistence to a better life, people have to produce more food than they require for their immediate needs. They need to have a surplus to trade for whatever else they need, and to save for the future. Specialising makes increased production possible, enabling producers to purchase an ever-widening range of assets and goods from other producers and suppliers.
Those who are not entrepreneurs sell their labour and skills to entrepreneurs and producers and in so doing are able to afford more goods and services and ultimately a better quality of life. Growing prosperity enables increasing numbers of individuals to concentrate on what they are good at, which today gives us doctors, scientists, engineers, carpenters, bricklayers, teachers, writers, musicians, and the plethora of goods and services that we take for granted. This was not always so.
Most people on earth lived in poverty for the 6000 years of known history. It is only from the 18th century onwards that people in some parts of the world succeeded in rapidly increasing production and trade. Between 1850 and 1900, for example, while the population of the United States tripled, wealth increased by a factor of thirteen. Scientific and technological discoveries played a part in overcoming poverty, but the greatest advance was in the laws of the countries that are now the wealthiest. People became free to use their time, talents and resources to produce whatever goods and services their skills allowed and to trade with anyone willing to trade with them. Their property was secure and they could depend on the law to protect their freedoms.
Most would agree that freedom and civilisation are threatened when violence, killing, stealing and forcefully taking people’s property become the norm and go unpunished. But, rarely recognised is the destruction of freedom that occurs when a government intervenes in and directs the economic and social activities of its citizens.
The liberty-destroying actions of government take many forms; from manipulating the money supply and interest rates, nationalising mines and banks, expropriating and redistributing legally acquired property, import protection, restrictions on foreign ownership, government enterprises, to restricting freedom of speech and the press, and laws, policies, and plans that direct and restrict production, trade and investment, or any of the plethora of government interventions ostensibly aimed at promoting human welfare.
If government intervention and direction of the economy could bring prosperity no one would be poor and dictatorships and countries with high levels of government intervention would be the most prosperous societies on earth, which they are not. Instead, the extent to which the government intervenes or participates in the economy is the extent to which liberty and prosperity-generating activities are restricted.
We see for ourselves that freer people are more prosperous than those who are less free, as illustrated today by North Korea vs. South Korea. Personal observation is supported by independent studies that confirm that people living in countries with high levels of freedom are wealthier, healthier and live longer than those in countries that are less free. The poor in freer countries are substantially better off than those in less free countries. Poor countries that free up their economies grow faster than those who don’t. Wherever a government removes the shackles that hold back individual effort and those that direct and restrict production and trade, rapid economic growth and wealth creation follows, as evidenced by Mauritius, India, and China, and recently Ghana.
Societies prosper when the law protects citizens and their property from violence, theft, fraud and physical harm, and when government compulsion is absent from economic activity. Accordingly, the legal system of a truly free society is built entirely on protecting the life, liberty and property of its citizens with the role of government limited to doing this and nothing more.
South Africa's national anthem encourages us to “live and strive for freedom” but, instead of striving for freedom, we should simply adopt liberty as the cornerstone of our society. We owe it to the thousands of entrepreneurs in the townships, and the millions who are striving to escape from poverty.
South Africa, the freest country on earth: that is my African dream.
<> Johan Biermann is the author of Undermining Mineral Rights and South Africa’s Health Care Under Threat, published by the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.
FMF Feature Article / 15 May 2012