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February 23, 2005

Prosperous, and Never a Famine

R.J. Rummel

Thug regimes not only enslave its people, murder them sometimes by the millions, and make war on their neighbors, but also incur or impose incredible famines—the less a peoples freedom, the greater the famines. The worse of all There is a joke Eastern Europeans made about the command economy when they lived under communism: were a communist country to take over the great Sahara Desert, we would hear nothing for ten years, after which there would be a shortage of sand.

Famines have also happened in authoritarian and fascist nations, although they were not even close in deaths to those under communism. By contrast, no democratically free people have ever had a famine. None. This is so important that I will put an even sharper point on it.

By the very nature of freedom, a free people are immune to one of humanity’s worst disasters, a famine.

This can be seen in Table 16.1.

This is not because nature is kinder to democracies. Note, for example, that in 1931 the worst drought ever to hit the United States began in the Midwestern and southern plains states and centered on Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. By 1934 the drought had spread to twenty-seven states and covered over 75 percent of the country. Without rain, farmlands that had been over-plowed and over-grazed became powder dry, resulting in huge dust storms called “black blizzards.” Drought took out of cultivation about 35 million acres of farmland, and dust storms were removing topsoil from 225 million acres more. In 1935 alone, 850 million tons of topsoil probably blew off the southern plains.

As the drought and dust storms continued year after year, whole farm families fled in caravans, wagons and carts piled high with belongings, leaving behind vacant homes and farm machinery partly buried in dusty soil.

Through a variety of relief, cultivation, and conservation projects and programs, Congress and the Roosevelt Administration acted to help farmers survive the drought, saving what land, crops, and livestock they could. Finally, in 1939, the rains came and the drought was over. While even lesser droughts had caused many tens of millions to starve to death where governments forbade a free market, I could not find a reference to even one American starving to death during the Dust Bowl. Some Americans did die of suffocation in the dust storms, however, and some died of related diseases.

The worst famine to hit a European country in the last two centuries was the Irish famine from 1845 to 1849, which is sometimes blamed on a free market. A fungus attacked and destroyed the potato, the major crop of Ireland’s peasants, causing massive famine throughout the country and the death of perhaps 1 million people, almost 13 percent of the population. Now, Great Britain had united Ireland with her by the 1801 Act of Union, and before that had ruled Ireland as, in effect, a colony. Over the previous centuries the British had tightly controlled the development of the Irish economy through many repressive laws, such as those inhibiting world and British trade with Ireland. In particular, various British governments were intent on suppressing Roman Catholicism, the religion of virtually all Irish peasants. Dating from 1695 and not fully repealed until 1829, laws to this end had a disastrous effect on Ireland’s agriculture.

For example, the British forbade Irish Catholics to receive an education, engage in trade or commerce, vote, buy land, lease land, rent land above a certain worth, reap any profit from land greater than a third of their rent, and own a horse worth more than a certain value. This code so distorted Ireland’s agricultural system, so impoverished the peasants, and made them so dependent on their landlords that any natural disaster wiping out their crops could only mean a major famine. Moreover, because of limits on the franchise, the secret ballot, and the manner of representation and legislative voting, Great Britain was not even an electoral democracy at the time of the famine. It did not become a democracy until it democratized its electoral system later in the century.

But there is even more to freedom than just avoiding disaster. It is no accident that democratically free people are the most economically advanced, technologically developed, and wealthiest in the world. Nor is it by chance that the poorest nations are those in which their dictators allow no or little open economic competition, prevent people from buying and selling goods freely, and encourage bribes of government bureaucrats or their relatives.

Then look at the economic miracles in Germany and Japan. The Allied bombing of these countries in World War II thoroughly destroyed their economies and infrastructures. Germany and Japan also had to absorb millions of returning soldiers and civilians, which for West Germany alone was about 8 million ethnic and Reich Germans, most homeless and hungry. How did these countries recover as fast as they did, going from being among the most devastated of nations in 1945 to being among the most economically powerful states in the early 1990s? In each case, it was the effects of freedom, particularly a free market.

Of course, when the Allies occupied these countries after the war, they provided aid to relieve starvation, but this would have been only a short run solution had they not also broken up monopolistic government-big business cartels, encouraged private enterprise, freed the marketplace of many government controls, assured the rule of law, and democratized the political systems. It is to the credit of the Japanese and West German postwar leaders that when given their nation’s independence, they maintained and enhanced their people’s democratic freedom. Both Japan and Germany are now liberal democracies.

For further proof, note the rapid economic growth and modernization of now-democratic South Korea. A good measure of this growth is in its annual total of goods and services, or gross domestic product. This averaged a growth rate of 5.3 percent annually, 1950 to 1985, despite the devastating Korean War during the first three years. For the world as a whole, the average was less than half that, or 2.3 percent. In 1998, South Korea’s growth rate was even higher at 6.8 percent, and it is now becoming a close competitor to Japan.

Compare this to North Korea, with the same ethnicity, culture, and traditions, and with a more developed industrial base before the communist takeover. While the southern half of Korea is prospering, the north under a command economy is bankrupt and economically ravaged, with its people suffering under a severe famine and dying in the millions.

There is also the example of now-democratic Taiwan, whose economy from 1950 to 1985 grew at a rate of 7 percent, leveling off in 1998 to 4.8 percent. Taiwan now is among the industrially developed nations. Then there is the “Asian tiger” that is Singapore, whose authoritarian government has allowed the market to be free; it has become an economic jewel of southeast Asia. From 1950 to 1985 it grew at an average annual rate of 7.9 percent, making it then the economically fastest growing country in the world.

Hong Kong, formerly under British colonial rule, was another free market, economic jewel; since communist China took it over from Britain by treaty in 1997, it remains to be seen how long this will last. Located on a series of small islands and a small strip of mainland China, it comprises only 397 square miles. In 1945 it had a population of fewer than 600,000, but through natural population growth and by absorbing millions of refugees fleeing communist China, its population swelled to over 6 million. Despite the many people on this small bit of land, there was little unemployment; it had a bustling, productive, and continually growing economy, and an annual growth rate of 6.9 percent up to 1997, which was only slightly behind Singapore and Taiwan at the time.

Now compare the results of the freedom in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong to what happened in mainland China when Mao deprived its people of any freedom: total economic disaster, rebellions, economic retrogression, and tens of millions of people starving to death.

With the death of Mao in 1976, the new Party dictators began to liberalize its economy and introduced a semi-controlled free market in many areas of the country, as described in Chapter 1. Total Party control had so devastated the economy that once the Party lifted many of its controls, China’s economy leaped forward at or near a double-digit rate. In 1998, it was growing at 7.8 percent. The Chinese people are rebuilding their cities, a new class of Chinese investors and businesspeople is competing with businesses from abroad, and for the first time in decades, the Chinese now have plenty of food. The signs of economic vigor and growth now astound a visitor returning to China after thirty years’ absence.

Of course, I have only given examples here and not a systematic analysis of the consequences of freedom for all nations. That has been done elsewhere freedom produces wealth and prosperity .

These are moral goods of freedom, a moral reason for people to be free.

R.J Rummel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Nobel Peace Prize finalist, has published twenty-nine books, and received numerous awards for his research. See his short bio.

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