Over at the Wall Street Journal, William Easterly worries about the international response to America’s financial woes:
Some countries are already taking the wrong prescriptions from recent events. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya told the U.N. General Assembly last month that the lesson of the crash was “the market’s laws were demonic, satisfying only the few.” Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo said the “market mechanism” and “immoral speculation” were a mistake. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva Lula added that speculators have “spawned the anguish of entire peoples” and Brazilians needed “indispensable interventions by state authorities.”
We have been here before. Development economics — the study of how poor countries can become rich — was forever cursed by the timing of its birth after the Great Depression. That gave development economics a bias toward relying on governments, rather than markets, to create growth. The early development economists ignored a century and a half of European and North American development through individual enterprise, remembering only that their governments forcefully intervened to stimulate output during the 1930s.
As Easterly points out, such an approach will stunt long-term growth:
Development economics still bears the scars of the Depression. A prominent World Bank Growth Commission concluded in May that “fast, sustained growth does not happen spontaneously. It requires a long-term commitment by a country’s political leaders,” and “each country has specific characteristics and historical experiences that must be reflected” in the leaders’ “growth strategy.” Some at the U.N. still recommend the discredited Big Push strategy of state-planned investment.
How much poverty has endured because individual entrepreneurs were shunned in favor of the likes of the $5 billion state-owned Ajaokuta Steel Mill in Nigeria, which never produced a bar of steel? Or because African governments spend their time preparing World Bank-required national Poverty Reduction Strategy Reports instead of freeing space for innovators?
We will never know. But we do know that the free market has a long-run track record of creating prosperity — even with the occasional crash. The Depression’s deceptive intellectual legacy is that development flows from all-knowing states rather than creative individuals. Here’s hoping that the backlash to today’s crash will not spawn another round of bad economics for the poor.