There’s A Lesson For America In Zimbabwe’s Misfortune

Zimbabwe was once one of the rare success stories in Africa. How much of a success story? We’re talking about an African nation that was actually exporting food.

Then Robert Mugabe came along and he did something extraordinarily foolish. Here’s a RWN post from Megan McArdle back in mid-2005 describing what happened,

When Robert Mugabe took the lands of white farmers five years ago to redistribute to squatters and peasants (and many well-connected blacks as well), it caused an agricultural collapse that has repeatedly brought the country to the brink of famine. Now the ripples are spreading. Agricultural exports were the main source of foreign exchange; now that Zimbabwe is a net importer, firms can’t get foreign currency to buy their imports, so manufacturing is collapsing as well…

…It is depressing to look back at history and see how regularly the same nice-sounding idea–“let’s take the land from the rich people who unjustly own it and give it to those who need it”–turns into tragedy for everyone. It’s even more depressing to realize that despite the seeming predictability of the result, lots of people want to do it anyway.

It doesn’t look like Mugabe’s little left-wing experiment was working out too well in 2005, does it? Well, unsurprisingly it has gotten even worse since then. Here’s a New York Times piece by Bob Herbert describing what’s happening in Zimbabwe today,

Life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now the lowest in the world: 37 years for men and 34 for women. A cholera epidemic is raging. People have become ill with anthrax after eating the decaying flesh of animals that had died from the disease. Power was lost to the morgue in the capital city of Harare, leaving the corpses to rot.

Most of the world is ignoring the agony of Zimbabwe, a once prosperous and medically advanced nation in southern Africa that is suffering from political and economic turmoil — and the brutality of Mugabe’s long and tyrannical reign.

The decline in health services over the past year has been staggering. An international team of doctors that conducted an “emergency assessment” of the state of medical care last month seemed stunned by the catastrophe they witnessed. The team was sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights. In their report, released this week, the doctors said:

“The collapse of Zimbabwe’s health system in 2008 is unprecedented in scale and scope. Public-sector hospitals have been shuttered since November 2008. The basic infrastructure for the maintenance of public health, particularly water and sanitation services, have abruptly deteriorated in the worsening political and economic climate.”

Doctors and nurses are trying to do what they can under the most harrowing of circumstances: facilities with no water, no functioning toilets and barely any medicine or supplies. The report quoted the director of a mission hospital:

“A major problem is the loss of life and fetal wastage we are seeing with obstetric patients. They come so late, the fetuses are already dead. We see women with eclampsia who have been seizing for 12 hours. There is no intensive care unit here, and now there is no intensive care in Harare.

“If we had intensive care, we know it would be immediately full of critically ill patients. As it is, they just die.”

Mugabe’s corrupt, violent and profoundly destructive reign has left Zim-babwe in shambles. It’s a nation overwhelmed by poverty, the H.I.V./AIDS pandemic and hyperinflation. Once considered the “breadbasket” of Africa, Zimbabwe is now a country that cannot feed its own people. The unemployment rate is higher than 80 percent. Malnutrition is widespread, as is fear.

A lot of people will probably read that description, say, “Geeze, what an idiot that Mugabe is” or even, “Well, that’s Africa for you,” shrug their shoulders, and then forget about it.

That’s a mistake because we here in the United States are doing the exact same thing Mugabe did — just on a lesser scale.

Granted, we’re not taking farm land from the rich and productive and giving it to the poor and unproductive, but we are taking another important resource: their money, and it is being handed out on an increasingly unprecedented scale.

When you take money, equipment, land — any resource of value — from productive people and consume it, there is a price to be paid. It’s like a farmer eating his seed corn. For every meal he makes, he has that much less to plant in the spring.

Now does that mean that farmer can’t afford to make any meals out of that corn? No. But, but if he eats too much of his own supply, he will eventually reach a tipping point where it adversely affects his livelihood.

In our case, if we tax the rich excessively in order to hand out goodies to the poor, we can get into the same dilemma because, as a general rule, it is the rich, not the poor, who help create jobs, bankroll new ventures, and supply the capital that makes our economy hum.

The more capital you take away from the rich via taxation, the more you strangle them with regulation, the more burdens you put on them, the less they will be in a position to grow the economy — and a growing economy is the key to success and prosperity for all Americans, both rich and poor.

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