The miracle of poverty

Mud oozed between her toes. Not ordinary mud. Mud containing rotting garbage, human and animal faeces, urine, and years of decaying vegetation. She milked an emaciated cow. The stench was appalling. A gaunt man vomited from the window of a dilapidated bus, into a street that was so filthy that his vomit would not be noticed. Children sat in wet dung and urine making dung pats to dry and burn for warmth and cooking - in tiny unlit shanties filled with asphyxiating smoke on that long cold winter night. A man rummaged in a garbage heap, like the pig and goat nearby, for whatever might be edible. “It’s amazing”, I said, “that people are alive under such conditions”. “Many aren’t”, explained my guide, “you see only those who survived infancy, and most of them die young”.

I saw these scenes of numbing destitution in Mumbai, Delhi, Agra and surrounding areas; symptomatic of how billions of humans eke out short brutish lives in India and many other countries. They are condemned to their fate by government policies that subvert free markets and property rights.

Poverty is miraculous. Ghastly, but miraculous, and perhaps the most extraordinary accomplishment of modern governments. Poor countries are the world’s true “economic miracles”, not post-war Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Botswana or Mauritius. Prosperity in such countries is no “miracle”. It is the natural outcome of relative economic freedom. If there are “economic miracles”, they are backward countries, where governments have succeeded in preventing prosperity. India, like South Africa, is a nation of manifestly energetic, resourceful and enterprising people. If left alone, they would prosper. This was confirmed when India implemented modest pro-market reforms. The country was rewarded with one of the world’s highest growth rates.

But India’s flirtation with prosperity may be short-lived. It has formidable enemies, including most first-world governments, leading academics and scientists, wealthy foundations, thousands of NGOs, influential journalists, passionate activists, and countless other powerful interests. These forces constitute a new kind of colonialism, which we might call eco-imperialism. It is more insidious, pervasive and potentially more devastating than traditional imperialism.

The newspapers on my lap as I was driven through the squalor of urban and rural poverty surrounding Agra carried surreal reports of new esoteric and costly environmental, health and safety laws, promoted by vocal opponents of spontaneous development because it is supposedly “unsustainable”. They are seductive protagonists of the “precautionary principle” in response to exaggerated or imaginary environmental risks, and are enemies of “globalisation”, which would enable poor countries to attract foreign investment, import cheap goods, and export competitively to rich countries.

These latter-day imperialists are neo-Luddites who place elitist environmental whims and nebulous fears of “resource depletion” above the needs of the world’s destitute billions. They seek to impose first-world conceptions of environmentalism and human development, including anti-employment labour policies, on developing countries. They do not want poor countries to follow the development paths that made the prosperity of their own countries possible. Advanced countries mined minerals, harvested timber, converted jungles (rain forests) and swamps (wetlands) into cities and farms, domesticated and commercialised their wild life, and laboured under harsh conditions in freely chosen preference to worse alternatives. And now they deny poor countries the opportunity prosper in their footsteps.

People in developing countries should no longer be polite about, or influenced by, neo-imperial agendas. Decent people, aware of the suffering inflicted by real poverty, should agree on at least one simple principle: that the most urgent priority is to achieve maximal growth and development. The unknowable needs of future generations and the virtues of a low-risk environment must, by any caring calculus, be secondary.

Have you ever wondered why greens are against a greenhouse, why the regard sparsely populated countries as “over-populated”, or why they don’t want CFCs or ozone depletion? Scratch the surface of largely white first world elite causes – of people who arrive in air-conditioned planes from air-conditioned offices and drive through third world countries in air-conditioned 4x4s telling natives how to live – and you find not only neo-imperialism, but disguised racism. Why must we have “population control” in sparsely populated Africa rather than densely populated Europe?. As Jim Peron shows in Exploding Population Myths, the standard population literature is characterised by wanting less of anyone who isn’t white.
If the real concern is about poverty in Africa – if the population problem is a synonym for the poverty problem – the solution is prosperity, not exacerbated poverty for unwanted Africans, Indians or Chinese.

It is not people of colour for whom ozone depletion matters. Nature blessed dark “sun people” with melanin-enriched UV-resistant skin to withstand higher UV levels (due to the sun’s rays passing through the stratosphere at less obtuse angles nearer the equator). Dark people are accustomed to and unharmed by far higher UV levels than the most dire predictions towards the poles where we are urged to worry about depletion … from whence white “snow people” come. Must the entire planet be subjected to the horrendous cost of CFC prohibition for a handful of very rich, very white whites who want the indulgence of travelling to very remote places where ozone depletion might occur. Even then, the UV exposure they fear solves their problem by giving them a healthy UV-resistant tan? Or they can use sun tan lotion, or wear a hat, or stay indoors at noon.

Must dry parts of the world remain so because the first world is green enough? What about the real risk of the next ice age? In truth, most developing countries need a greenhouse effect.

Anti-development and anti-trade are anti-human
Notwithstanding strident prophecies of doom by the anti-development anti-trade brigade, not much is known with certainty about most global and environmental concerns. Almost all pessimistic environment, resource, scarcity and over-population predictions have been 180 degrees wrong for more than a generation. They can no longer be taken seriously. Exaggerations and lies in the litany of widely published scare stories about the state of the planet have been exposed repeatedly by a growing number of realists such as Julian Simon (The Ultimate Resource and It’s Getting Better All The Time) and Bjørn Lomborg (The Sceptical Environmentalist). Most importantly, whether or not things are as bad as we are told, there is a simple fact about which there can no longer be informed debate: superior conditions, however measured, arise in countries with freer economies (Economic Freedom of the World and Index of Economic Freedom). These are countries where governments do more for their people by doing less. Their poorest communities, like American blacks, Irish Catholics, and German migrant workers, are wealthy by global standards. Their citizens enjoy the world’s highest living standards, literacy, life expectancy and incomes, along with more housing, safe water, food, leisure, welfare, security, democracy and human rights. These countries also have the least unemployment, pollution, corruption, disease and resource scarcity; and the best services, technology, health care, education, telecommunications and transport. No matter how one measures welfare, there’s more of it where governments refrain from causing poverty by curtailing markets.

The myth of unsustainability
“It’s not that simple”, developing country leaders are warned. Rapid growth and development for suffering people is in some mysterious sense “unsustainable”, as if the word has coherent meaning in this context. It has none. “Sustainable development” theory is voodoo science at its worst; pure gobbledygook. Sustainable for how long: 10, 100, 1000, a million or a billion years? For whom? Advanced people with unknowable future technology, needs and resources? What must be sustainable? Utilisation of “non-renewables”? Why not consume them? They are resources only if used. For how long are we supposed to conserve them? Must our decedents, by the same twisted logic, do likewise? Forever? The sooner resources are used the better for present and future generations.

Equally, why conserve existing eco-systems or bio-diversity? What is so special about the status quo? Why freeze it arbitrarily in a world that has never been static into whatever it happens to prevail now? Or is it something else we must conserve? To what end do conservatives want “conservation for conservation sake” whilst people starve? No! Poor countries should utilize their resources as rich countries did at similar stages of development, or they should be fully compensated by rich countries wanting to indulge elitist fantasies of a pristine world. Let them buy unutilised jungles, swamps, marine resources and “endangered” wildlife at full market value, and then conserve them at their own expense. Or shut up.

The concern that development might be unsustainable is truly bizarre. History and logic suggest that development is by its nature sustainable. It and it alone provides the human, financial and technological resources to render it sustainable. The best thing we can do for future generations is generate maximal wealth forthwith, thus empowering them to live better lives. Even discredited radical greens now admit that basic resources are so plentiful as to be essentially limitless (Misleading Math About the Earth, Scientific American, January 2002). If anything is unsustainable it is the alternatives to development: stagnation and regression. Curtailed development would mean the poor being unable to sustain life, technology needed for sustainability being retarded, and development of new resources being unsustained.

All people need is economic freedom
If the developing world is to enjoy liberation from poverty, its leaders have to be bold and wise. They need third world policies for third world countries. What this means is really quite simple. They must resist unsustainable neo-colonial babble and do what rich countries did to become rich, not what they do now. That is, they should minimise government intervention, reduce tax, maintain the rule of law and separation of powers, respect property rights, avoid discretionary law and insist on due process. In short, they must liberate their people from excessive government. If they happen to be leaders of one of the countries that is mired in poverty they will find that, given this favourable environment, their people will improve the quality of their lives rapidly. They will exchange the “miracle of poverty” for the non-miracle of spontaneous prosperity, and the scenes I witnessed will disappear from the world.

FMF Policy Bulletin / 15 September 2009


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