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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
22 Oct 2014
Embarrassing Economists

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Africa: A Tragic Continent


Here's how my Aug. 11, 2003, column began: "Anyone who believes President Bush's Africa initiative, including sending U.S. troops to Liberia, will amount to more than a hill of beans is whistling Dixie. Maybe it's overly pessimistic, but most of Africa is a continent without much hope for its people." More than a decade has passed since that assessment, and little has changed to suggest a more optimistic outlook. Now Ebola threatens the very existence of the West African nations Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Moreover, the deadly disease is likely to spread to neighboring nations.

Each year, The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation publish an "Index of Economic Freedom," which measures economic liberty around the world. Mauritius is the only one of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to rank among the 10 freest economies in the world. Botswana is the second-freest African country, followed by Cape Verde. South Africa used to be near the top but has since declined. Of the other sub-Saharan countries, 11 are rated as "repressed" and 26 are "mostly unfree." Eight of the world's 20 least free economies are in Africa's sub-Saharan region.

Poverty is not a cause but a result of Africa's problems. What African countries need the West cannot provide. They need personal liberty. That means a political system in which there are guarantees of private property rights, free markets, honest government and the rule of law. Africa's poverty is, for the most part, self-inflicted. Some people might disagree because their college professors taught them that the legacy of colonialism explains Third World poverty. That's nonsense. Canada was a colony. So were Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. In fact, the richest country in the world, the United States, was once a colony. By contrast, Third World countries such as Ethiopia, Liberia, Nepal and Bhutan were never colonies, yet they are home to some of the world's poorest people.

There's no complete explanation for why some countries are affluent while others are poor, but there are some leads.

Rank countries according to whether they are closer to being a free market economy or whether they're closer to having a socialist or planned economy. Then rank countries by per capita income. Doing so, we will find a general, though not perfect, pattern whereby those having a larger measure of economic freedom find their citizens enjoying a higher standard of living. Also, if we ranked countries according to how Freedom House or Amnesty International rates human rights protections, we'd find that citizens of freer market economies enjoy a greater measure of human rights protections. You can bet the rent money that the correlation among free markets, wealth and human rights protections is not coincidental.

With but few exceptions, most African countries are worse off now than they were during colonialism, both in terms of standard of living and in terms of human rights protections. Once a food-exporting country, Zimbabwe recently stood near the brink of starvation. Sierra Leone is rich in minerals — especially diamonds — has highly fertile land and is the best port site in West Africa, but it has declined into a state of utter despair. Africa is the world's most natural-resources-rich continent. It has 50 percent of the world's gold, most of the world's diamonds and chromium, 90 percent of the cobalt, 40 percent of the world's potential hydroelectric power, 65 percent of the manganese, and millions of acres of untilled farmland, as well as other natural resources. Before independence, every African country was self-sufficient in food production; today many depend on imports, and others stand at the brink of famine.

Though there's a strong case for us to help with the Ebola crisis, the worst thing Westerners could do to Africa would be to send more foreign aid. Foreign aid provides the financial resources that enable Africa's grossly corrupt and incompetent regimes to buy military equipment, pay off cronies and continue to oppress their people. It also provides resources for the leaders to live lavishly and set up "retirement" accounts in foreign banks.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



7 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;... That word: Tragedy; is the most abused word in our language. When Israel "accidently" bombs an apartment building full of women and children, they say it is a tragedy. It isn't a tragedy. It's a travesty of justice, and a crime.
I must wonder if anyone of the fools who use that word has ever read a real tragedy, or ever dared to delve into that relationship between mortals and immortals that makes such a sin and crime of human Hubris. Why don't those who kill innocents ever state the fact that from their perspective, from their ethical milieu, that there are no innocents; and there are only friends and enemies. It is because good people everywhere are striving for a human morality that sees all of humanity as one family and any injury to one as an injury to all. We are not there.
We are not there yet, but neither has this outrage of unresisted pandemic any relation to tragedy. We have interfered in Africa for hundreds of years, and without them working themselves up to an equality of economy and nationality we have invaded their lands to exploit them, and only offer them our faith all mixed up with white man's medicine. We did help to keep them alive. We did help them in the name of God to over populate. We did hand them the guns essential to our control of their natural resources, but then we deny our part in this terrible situation, and call it a tragedy. Do you think Pilate said that about Jesus?
Technically Gods and demi gods are not the subjects of tragedy. It is when we are brave and bold and strike out in our will against our fate that we become tragic anti-heroes. Gods can only be heroes. What sting had death to Jesus. He could only know the pain of death, and not its finality.
The more distant you are from tragedy, the more funny it becomes. Anti-heroes are criminals. Looking at criminals from the perspective of society, the suffering of the criminal is a happy thing, so the comedy of the crime drama is tragedy turned on its ear. There are many in America who find some humor in the suffering we see in Africa because of the low opinion we hold of that race of people. We will find nothing much to laugh about if Ebola finds a home in America. It will show us how much we have been exploited and robbed in the name of higher and higher profits.
We will not see Ebola as it cuts its way through our cities, universities, and factories as a tragedy. We will see it as a crime, and we will see all those who robbed profit out of our health care system when they could have been building reliability in- as criminals. Disease and war have been the right and left arms of capitalism making all profit possible. When we as a whole understand the relationship between disease, war, and capitalist exploitation these crimes will end together and forever.
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Oct 27, 2014 10:07 AM
Re: James A, Sweeney
Just let me know when and where to go for re-education. I don't want to be murdered for not getting on board with the program.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Jerry Litzler
Mon Oct 27, 2014 11:24 AM
Re: Jerry Litzler... Sir... People die every day. People are killed every day. Those people robbing the language of meaning are making death and murder more likely than less so. To call some death a tragedy when no action of any god is behind it -is a damned lie meant to cover some ones part in the murder of another. Do you think people in Israel do not jump for joy at the thought of men women and children on the other side dying? If they simply admitted their part in it, that from their perspective it is moral as I will certainly agree, then their honesty, and the truth will give their words meaning. To say tragedy is to recall a certain situation beyond the control of human beings. Do you think in this age that people do not know where their missles will hit. Do you think a god has his finger on the trigger. We are not all victims here, like lambs led with music to the altar. This is humanity and these are human beings behind these less than human actions. And this is true as well of Africa.
Have you ever read Conrad's Heart of Darkness? Apocalyps now was in many respects a take off of it, without a fraction of the moral lesson. Did you know that it was a mere book keeper for England who as part of a treaty obligation with the Netherlands that first discovered how much slavery played a part in the rubber trade? He noticed that this labor intensive rubber was off loaded from Africa, and guns were loaded onto the same ships; and book keeper that he was, he put two and two together and found four equaled slavery, and this is echoed in Heart of Darkness.
My Catholic Church has made a happy haven for itself in Africa. Many others have followed in its wake. All of them are eager to interfere in these societies and work their magic on the cultures they find there. We have had centuries of colonialism in Africa, and you will find that the largest supplier of weapons to that land is us. We take in trade their mineral wealth, and make the minimum of capital improvements. We play upon the fact that just as with the Native Americans, there is no sense of any single nationality, but a great number of nations that can be played off against each other. To go so far for profit does not allow for much depth of infrastructure, and I believe you would find that medical care has always been an adjunct of religious evangelism. But to say Tragedy is a denial of the human handprints of foreigners and petty potentates in that land.
We have people rating these societies on economic freedom, and the rule of law. Rule of law is another name for rule by those who control the law, and economic freedom is another word for slavery. If we wanted to we could capitalize these people and help them to produce for their own needs. Why then would they trade with us? If we could produce for ourselves, why would we trade with them. Only trade, with open markets, with the economic freedom to bleed foreign populations justifies our presence in Africa. Now we have Ebola doing for free what expensive war must usually accomplish. Do you think any Western Society would mind if Africa the Beautiful were entirely depopulated of black people so we could have our way with it? Mr. Williams certainly has no grasp of the problem. Does he understand that his forefathers may have been bought for a bag of salt, or a hand full of cowry shells? Does he understand that up to this present day, while most of the world has made slavery illegal they turn a blind eye to it in places like Africa? Even if you admit that where the English legal system was established that the people are more pacific and prosperous, it is only because they cannot recreate a culture and a native law that once held sway. They cannot go back, and neither can the rest of Africa. They must find their future in the future because primitive people are only some kind of welcome mat to the capitalists. Until we learn to tell the truth, and find the truth we will never understand why so many people in this world hate our guts.
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Oct 27, 2014 12:47 PM
Re: Jerry Litzler;... Instead of looking for re-education; just try to realize that money does not just corrupt people, but it also corrupts the language. Truth is communication. Knowledge is understanding. If communication and understanding get in the way of the money you want to make off of people, you will be an enemy of both of them.
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Oct 27, 2014 12:51 PM
Very good analysis, Dr. Williams. The citizens of these countries have got to demand changes, otherwise, their plight will never change. Being justly compensated for serving your fellow human being is the only incentive that will sustain long term growth and improve the standard of living among nation states. The US is going the wrong way in terms of taxes, regulations, and confiscation by our governments. This includes local, state, and federal government.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Eric Jensen
Wed Oct 29, 2014 7:09 AM
Comment: #6
Posted by: Rick Martinez
Wed Oct 29, 2014 11:25 AM
Comment: #7
Posted by: Rick Martinez
Wed Oct 29, 2014 11:29 AM
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