Friday, July 29, 2011

How Does the Free Market Solve This?

I was at the library yesterday to pick up a book on hold (Voices from the Other Side if you're curious) and I scanned movies and saw "Darwin's Nightmare" which I thought looked interesting and informative. It was. Also heart breaking.

Every day 500 tons, sometimes more, of fish is flown out of Tanzania, mostly to Europe. It is extracted from Lake Victoria. What's flown in is armaments sold in places like the Congo or Nigeria. These are coming mostly from European arms dealers. Meanwhile the residents of Tanzania are literally starving. Most children you see don't seem to have any parenting. Fathers are either gone working as fishermen or dead due to AIDS. Widows turn to prostitution. Children find things to smoke or sniff so they can sleep in the streets without feeling anything. If they are sodomized the high prevents pain. Children literally beat each other up fighting for food.

Sometimes the fish load is more than the planes can carry, so the unfrozen remains are available. These are collected by the residents and placed on racks. Covered in flies and maggots, the lucky employed work through them. The rotten fish are boiled. This product is sold to the residents.

The UN comes in and notes that yeah, everyone is starving and they need aid. They complain about the suffering. But they go home and eat their fillets. The question is raised in the movie. The source of the problem is the incoming armaments and outgoing food. To request aid is to treat the symptom. Wouldn't it make more sense for Europe to block the armaments and block the plundering of the lake? But if that was done what would these UN diplomats do with themselves?

The problem in my mind is the institution itself. The arms dealers like the present system. The cargo plane owners like it. The fish preparation factory owners like it. The providers of racks like it. The wealthy few corporations really like what's happening. The many poor suffer.

I have a difficult time understanding free market solutions to this problem. I think I know what liberterians would suggest. I just cannot fathom though why we should expect these solutions to work. What is the free market solution here?

This article from the conservative Hoover Institute says the problem is property rights. Robinson says that Europe had patent law. This allowed persons in Britain to be secure in knowing that they would enjoy the benefits of their inventions. He says Europe cast aside serfdom earlier than Africa. Serfdom is contrary to good property rights (is it?). In parts of Africa today certain chiefs control everything and you need good connections to have hope.

I agree that's a problem, though it doesn't seem to be a problem in Tanzania. The cargo planes are owned by a company and they don't seem to have problems. The fish preparation factories are doing fine. They can pay guards $1/day to watch their plants, though those guards are sometimes murdered. I didn't see big problems for owners, but supposing this is an issue. How do we fix it?

Open up the markets to free trade, says Robinson. I don't understand how that solves anything. The Europeans are having no difficulty shipping in arms and flying out the food. My understanding is that the barriers to trade have been low for 30 years. Next Robinson says economics should play a bigger role in foreign policy. Finally we need to promote more checks and balances in government in Africa.

These later two suggestions seem too vague to be useful. The free trade suggestion seems to me is already being implemented, but it's the one concrete suggestion. So what else?

Here's another approach. Reduce trade barriers, open markets, end the subsidies.

How does this solve the problem? There's plenty of trade. Europeans are good at making weapons. Africans lack technical skills, so they fish. We're all pursuing our comparative advantage. And the children starve. The mothers are driven in to prostitution. $10 for the night. That's their comparative advantage. In my view the free market solution should be expected to lead to status quo.

In my view what would help is independence. Prior to 1980 economic growth in Africa following WWII was pretty good. A shade under 2% growth in GDP. Since then they have been subjected to international trade agreements that prevent them from operating independently. Growth didn't just stop, but declined. Countries that have governments with enough muscle to resist those agreements have done well (China, India). They need independence, not forced free trade and neoliberalism.

One can disagree with my solution, but why think more free trade would help Africa?

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