Africa Studied, For Real

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Economists and the textbooks they rely on usually cannot explain the economic collapse that accompanies socialism because they gloss over the role that property rights play in assuring prosperity.

“In most textbooks, we have a paragraph or two about the importance of property rights,” Craig Richardson, an associate professor of economics at Salem College pointed out recently in a talk at the Cato Institute.

Richardson concluded that the collapse of property rights led directly to the famine now plaguing the once-prosperous African nation of Zimbabwe. The economist wrote the recently-released book, The Collapse of Zimbabwe in the Wake of the 2000-2003 Land Reforms.

“The economic literature has very little on how a country collapses,” said Richardson, who compiled a report on Zimbabwe for the World Bank 12 years ago. As the grim statistics that Richardson delivers show, there is a crying need for such a study.

  • Between 1999 and 2003, one-quarter of Zimbabwe’s population fled the country.
  • During that same time period, the unemployment rate hit the 80 % mark.
  • At the same time, Zimbabwe’s already low life expectancy has dropped from 56 to 33 years of age.

“When I first visited Zimbabwe in 1996, $1 would buy about $8 Zimbabwean,” Roger Bate, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute said. “When I was there last November, $1 would get you $6,000 Zim at the official rate, but more like $12,000 on the black market.”

“Today’s bank notes are printed on only one side and with an expiration date.” Bate spoke on the panel with Richardson.

Richardson was skeptical of the explanation for Zimbabwe’s collapse offered by the international aid community: Both the UN and the International Monetary Fund pinned the blame for the downturn on drought.

This struck Richardson as too facile an explanation. “For one thing, farms are only 15 % of the economy,” Richardson notes.

Moreover, the original source of the information these analyses relied on came from four weather stations. At least one of those weather stations was far removed from the farms where maize was grown.

Another conclusion that proved baseless was the oft-quoted allegation that whites, who comprise an ever-shrinking minority of Zimbabwe’s population, possessed the country’s most arable land that is best-suited for agriculture. Satellite images show that commercial farms frequently lie on land that is adjacent to communal farms, under the control of the government of Zimbabwe’s longtime president, Robert Mugabe [pictured].

What the “land reforms” in the title of Richardson’s book did was to put more of the commercial farms under the control of the government. The government claimed it was exercising its version of eminent domain in order to redistribute the land of the supposedly well-heeled whites whose ancestors moved to the region in the 20th Century.

The Mugabe government stated that the beneficiaries of the redistribution would be the descendants of the native Zimbabweans who originally occupied the region. Thus far, Zimbabwe’s rulers have been unable to find many such descendants who are not either in the president’s cabinet or members of his family.

Meanwhile, most Zimbabweans, black and white, are finding once available products such as rice to be rarely encountered luxuries.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.