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Oh, Go Away Already

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It’s unseemly for people who have never created wealth to tell those who have how to spend it. Especially when they do so while sitting around the Villa La Pietra overlooking Florence. The Associated Press described the setting as “a spectacular 14th-century Renaissance palace with frescoed ceilings.” Perfect for discussing how to help the poor — with other people’s money.

There was President Clinton and his ilk, the top politicians of Western Europe, at a conference titled Progressive Governance for the 21st Century. It was yet another confab on the so-called “third way.” That’s a fancy name for that elusive system which maintains the façade of the free market while letting politicians wield as much power as they wish.

The conference was about bringing economic growth to the underdeveloped world. According to news accounts, it included nothing about what the governments of the poor countries need to do. It was all about what the wealthy countries should do.

As President Clinton put it, “The people in Africa are no different from the people in America. If you give people access to technology, a lot of smart people will figure out how to make a lot of money.” He lectured the West to “get more cell phones and computer hookups” to the underdeveloped world.

So the reason Africa is not as rich as we are, is that we are not giving them enough access to technology.

This is thoughtful analysis?

If Clinton was right, no country would be rich today. Mankind was born poor. The first people who rose out of poverty had no one to get technology transfers from. How did they prosper? That question apparently has never occurred to President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, or the rest of the brilliant men who rule the Western world.

For centuries, governments used capricious force against common people, preventing them from producing wealth. When the rulers retrenched, people felt secure enough to work and invest with the hope of reaping profits. No one does that if he thinks his profits will be confiscated. Feeling secure in their property, people developed an elaborate division of labor, expanded trade, and created wealth. Living standards rose dramatically. It was all the result of human ingenuity released by freedom, private property, and limits on political power.

Government’s sole contribution was to discourage — and abstain from — plunder. It produced nothing, because all government has is the legal authority to bash heads.

Capitalism is what the have-nots have not. They don’t need wealth transfers engineered by the plundering governments of the West. They need to dump their idiotic socialist laws that smother freedom and entrepreneurship. They need to recognize and protect private property. When they do that, Westerners will be eager to invest there because it will be profitable to do so. That will result in new opportunities and rising living standards in the poorest nations on earth.

This is not idle theorizing. Look at what Hong Kong and Taiwan have accomplished in the last 50 years. Those successes had nothing to do with the West “sharing” its wealth. Freedom, entrepreneurship, and private property were the reasons.

Yet there was apparently no discussion of the successes of “Third World” at the Villa La Pietra. That would not suit the purposes of the assembled Very Important People without whom the world could not manage. How could Mr. Clinton acknowledge that the key to prosperity is for him and his colleagues to get out of the way? How could they possibly admit that they are not producers but parasites?

The tragedy is that they let the socialist rulers in the underdeveloped world off the hook. Those rulers can continue to distract attention from their own failed policies and agree that poverty is the West’s fault. If only the rich would send modems and cell phones, everything would be fine.

This self-serving game has worn thin. It’s time for the masters of legalized plunder to take their pensions and retire to their posh villas, leaving the honest producers of the world to create prosperity free from the impositions and presumptions we call politics.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.