The Future of the Third World

by Jayant Bhandari, Acting Man:

Decolonization

The British Empire was the largest in history. At the end of World War II Britain had to start pulling out from its colonies. A major part of the reason was, ironically, the economic prosperity that had come through industrialization, massive improvements in transportation, and the advent of telecommunications, ethnic and religious respect, freedom of speech, and other liberties offered by the empire.

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After the departure of the British — as well as the French, German, Belgians, and other European colonizers — most of the newly “independent” countries suffered rapid decay in their institutions, stagnant economies, massive social strife, and a fall in standards of living. An age of anti-liberalism and tyranny descended on these former colonies. They rightly became known as third-world countries.

An armchair economist would have assumed that the economies of these former colonies, still very backward and at a very low base compared to Europe, would grow at a faster rate. Quite to the contrary, as time went on, their growth rates stayed lower than those of the West.

Socialism and the rise of dictators were typically blamed for this — at least among those on the political Right. This is not incorrect, but it is a merely proximate cause. Clarity might have been reached if people had contemplated the reason why Marxism and socialism grew like weeds in the newly independent countries.

Was There a Paradigm Shift in the 1980s?

According to conventional wisdom, the situation changed after the fall of the socialist ringleader, the USSR, in the late 1980s. Ex-colonized countries started to liberalize their economies and widely accepted democracy, leading to peace, the spread of education and equality, the establishment of liberal, independent institutions. Massive economic growth ensued and was sustained over the past three decades. The “third world” was soon renamed “emerging markets.”

Alas, this is a faulty narrative. Economic growth did pick up in these poor countries, and the rate of growth did markedly exceed that of the West, but the conventional narrative confuses correlation with causality. It tries to fit events to ideological preferences, which assume that we are all the same, that if Europeans could progress, so should everyone else, and that all that matters are correct incentives and appropriate institutions.

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The beginning and end of the Soviet communist era in newspaper headlines. The overthrow of Kerensky’s interim government was the start of Bolshevik rule. To be precise, the Bolsheviks took over shortly thereafter, when they disbanded the constituent assembly in in early 1918 and subsequently gradually did the same to all non-Bolshevik Soviets that had been elected. A little more than seven decades later, the last Soviet Bolshevik leader resigned. It is worth noting that by splitting the Russian Federation from the Ukraine and Belorussia, Yeltsin effectively removed Gorbachev from power – the latter was suddenly president of a country that no longer existed and chairman of a party that was declared illegal in Russia. [PT] – click to enlarge.

The claimed liberalization in the “emerging markets” after the collapse of the USSR did not really happen. Progress was always one step forward and two steps back. In some ways, government regulations and repression of businesses in the “emerging markets” have actually gotten much worse. Financed by increased taxes, governments have grown by leaps and bounds — not for the benefit of society but for that of the ruling class — and are now addicted to their own growth.

The ultimate underpinnings of the so-called emerging markets haven’t changed. Their rapid economic progress during the past three decades — a one-off event — happened for reasons completely different from those assumed by most economists. The question is: once the effect of the one-off event has worn off, will emerging markets revert to the stagnation, institutional degradation, and tyranny that they had leaped into soon after the European colonizers left?

The One-Off Event: What Actually Changed in the 1980s

In the “emerging markets” (except for China) synchronized favorable economic changes were an anomaly. They resulted in large part from the new, extremely cheap telephony that came into existence (a result of massive cabling of the planet implemented in the 1980s) and the subsequent advent of the new technology of the internet. The internet enabled instantaneous transfer of technology from the West and as a consequence, unprecedented economic growth in “emerging markets.”

Meanwhile, a real cultural, political, and economic renaissance started in China. It was an event so momentous that it changed the economic structure not just of China, but of the whole world. Because China is seen as a communist dictatorship, it fails to be fully appreciated and respected by intellectuals who are obsessed with the institution of democracy.

But now that the low-hanging fruit from the emergence of the internet and of China (which continues to progress) have been plucked, the “emerging markets” (except, again, for China) are regressing to their normal state: decay in their institutions, stagnant economies, and social strife. They should still be called the “third world.”

There are those who hold China in contempt for copying Western technology, but they don’t understand that if copying were so easy, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia would have done the same. They were, after all, prepared for progress by their colonial history.

European colonizers brought in the rule of law and significantly reduced the tribal warfare that was a matter of daily routine in many of the colonies — in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Britain and other European nations set up institutional structures that allowed for the accumulation of intellectual and financial capital. Western-style education and democracy were initiated. But this was helpful in a very marginal way.

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