The Poor Man's Burden: Eighty Years Ago, a Depression Changed the Way We Think about Poverty. It Took Decades for the World to Recover and to Remember That If People Are Given Freedom, They Will Prosper. Now, in the Wake of Another Massive Meltdown, the Fear That Shocked Us into Depending on Government to Fix Poverty Is Spreading Once Again-And Threatening to Undo Many of the Gains We've Made

By Easterly, William | Foreign Policy, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Poor Man's Burden: Eighty Years Ago, a Depression Changed the Way We Think about Poverty. It Took Decades for the World to Recover and to Remember That If People Are Given Freedom, They Will Prosper. Now, in the Wake of Another Massive Meltdown, the Fear That Shocked Us into Depending on Government to Fix Poverty Is Spreading Once Again-And Threatening to Undo Many of the Gains We've Made


Easterly, William, Foreign Policy


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Will Richard Fuld, the disgraced CEO of the now defunct Lehman Brothers, go down in history as the father of Bolivian socialism? If we learn the wrong lessons from the global financial Crash of 2008, he very well could.

That's because the crash arrived at a crucial moment in the global fight to reduce poverty. For Bolivia--and so many other countries like it--the crash represents much more than a temporary downturn; it could mean the end of one of the greatest openings for prosperity in decades. Amid today's gloom, it is easy to forget we have just witnessed half a century of the greatest mass escape from poverty in human history. The proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty in 2008 (those earning less than a $1 a day) was a fifth of what it was in 1960. In 2008, the income of the average citizen of the world was nearly three times higher than it was in 1960. But those tremendous gains are now in peril. For this crash hit many poor countries from Asia to Africa to Latin America that are still experimenting with political and economic freedom--but have yet to fully embrace it and experience its benefits. For decades, these countries have struggled tremendously to realize the potential of individual creativity as opposed to the smothering hand of the state. And it even seemed that the power of individual liberty might be winning.

It wasn't happening because experts had handed out some blueprint for achieving economic growth to governments and then down to their people. What happened instead was a Revolution from Below--poor people taking initiative without experts telling them what to do. We saw such surprising success stories as the family grocer in Kenya who became a supermarket giant, the Nigerian women who got rich making tie-dyed garments, the Chinese schoolteacher who became a millionaire exporting socks, and the Congolese entrepreneur who started a wildly successful cellphone business in the midst of his country's civil war. Perhaps not coincidentally, the share of countries enjoying greater levels of economic and political freedom steadily and simultaneously shot upward.

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Then came the crash.

Today, global economic calamity risks aborting that hopeful Revolution from Below. As India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned late last fall, "It would be a great pity if this growing support for open policies in the developing world is weakened" because of the crash. Singh understands that the risk of a backlash against individual freedom is far more dangerous than the direct damage to poor countries caused by a global recession, falling commodity prices, or shrinking capital flows. We're already seeing this dangerous trend in Latin America. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has openly crowed about the failure of Fuld's Lehman Brothers and other Wall Street giants: The capitalist "models in place are not a good solution for humanity ... because [they are] based on injustice and inequality." Socialism, he said, will be the solution--in Bolivia, the state "regulates the national economy, and not the free market." The leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Paraguay, Venezuela, and even tiny Dominica to varying degrees align with these anticapitalist pretensions, all seemingly vindicated by the Crash of 2008. And it's not confined to Latin America: Vladimir Putin blamed the U.S. financial system for his own populist mismanagement of Russia's even more catastrophic crisis. A spreading fire of statism would find plenty of kindling already stacked in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Asia. And there are many Western "development" experts who would eagerly fan the flames with their woolly, paternalistic thinking.

To Jeffrey Sachs, perhaps the foremost of these experts, the crash is an opportunity to gain support for the hopelessly utopian Millennium Development Goals of reducing poverty, achieving gender equality, and improving the general state of the planet through a centrally planned, government-led Big Push.

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The Poor Man's Burden: Eighty Years Ago, a Depression Changed the Way We Think about Poverty. It Took Decades for the World to Recover and to Remember That If People Are Given Freedom, They Will Prosper. Now, in the Wake of Another Massive Meltdown, the Fear That Shocked Us into Depending on Government to Fix Poverty Is Spreading Once Again-And Threatening to Undo Many of the Gains We've Made
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