The most fascinating story in the world is China today, as the world’s most populous country struggles toward modernity.
The Chinese rulers seem to be trying to emulate Singapore’s success in creating a dynamic modern economy while maintaining authoritarian rule. But can a nation of a billion people be managed as successfully as a city-state Since 1979 China has liberated its economy, creating de facto and even de jure property rights, allowing the creation of businesses, and freeing up labor markets. The result has been rapid economic growth. China has brought more people out of back-breaking poverty faster than any country in history.
And, as scholars such as F. A. Hayek have predicted, the development of property rights, civil society, and middle-class people has created a demand for political rights as well. Every week there are reports of actual elections for local posts, lawyers suing the government, dissidents standing up and often being jailed, labor agitation, and political demonstrations. It’s reminiscent of the long English struggle for liberty and constitutional government.
And it would be great if it turns out that modern technology can make that struggle shorter than it was in England. A hopeful example was reported this week. According to the Washington Post, hundreds of thousands of “text messages ricocheted around cellphones in Xiamen,” rallying people to oppose the construction of a giant chemical factory. The messages led to “an explosion of public anger,” large demonstrations, and a halt in construction.
Leave aside the question of whether the activists were right to oppose the factory. The more significant element of the story is that, as the Post reported, “The delay marked a rare instance of public opinion in China rising from the streets and compelling a change of policy by Communist Party bureaucrats.”
Cellphones and bloggers fighting against the Communist Party and its Propaganda Department and Public Security Bureau — and the “army of Davids” won. Reporters and editors afraid to cover the story followed it on blogs, even as the censors tried to block one site after another. This isn’t your father’s Red China.
Citizen blogger and eyewitness Wen Yunchao
said he and his friends have since concluded that if protesters had been armed with cellphones and computers in 1989, there would have been a different outcome to the notorious Tiananmen Square protest, which ended with intervention by the People’s Liberation Army and the killings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the streets of Beijing.
The cause of freedom is not looking so good in Russia these days. But in China a hundred flowers are blooming, a hundred schools of thought contending.
In Zimbabwe, the government is ordering businesses to cut prices and threatening to jail executives who don’t comply, in an attempt to deal with inflation that is now variously estimated at somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000 percent a year.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill both houses of Congress have passed legislation establishing stiff penalties for those found guilty of gasoline price gouging. The bill directs the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department to go after oil companies, traders, or retail operators if they take “unfair advantage” or charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for gasoline and other fuels in an “energy emergency.” (The complex energy legislation is still working its way through both houses, though both have endorsed the price-gouging provisions.)
How’d'ja like to be the bureaucrat charged with enforcing such vague and emotional language, or the businessperson trying not to incur a 10-year jail sentence for doing something “unfair” or “unconscionably excessive” It’d be sort of like living in, you know, Zimbabwe.
Did Congress offer bureaucrats and businesses any more specific guidance You bet they did. H.R. 6 and S. 1263 define an ”unconscionably excessive price” as a price that
(A)(i) represents a gross disparity between the price at which it was offered for sale in the usual course of the supplier’s business immediately prior to the President’s declaration of an energy emergency;
In Albania, anyway. NPR reports that garbage is piling up in the streets of Tirana, and “It’s something you could blame on the fall of communism.” As reporter Vicky O’Hara explained,
When communism collapsed here in the early 1900s so did the city’s system of garbage removal. Shpresa Rira, a teacher at the foreign language institute in Tirana, remembers that under communism families were ordered to spend part of their weekend picking up trash.
Ms. SHPRESA RIRA: It was called the communist Saturday because people were meant to come to come together and give their services to the community.
O’HARA: Rira says that people were not paid but they turned out anyway, because if they didn’t, the consequences could be dire.
So it was universal compulsory service, like Melvin Laird and John Edwards want for the United States. But it turns out it didn’t work so well in Albania.
The communist tactic, she says, destroyed community spirit in Albania.
Ms. RIRA: We thought that we were closely connected, but as soon as communism was over, you know, we understood that that community spirit didn’t exist at all. It was just a fake.
And like most collectivist systems, it did not “foster a culture of responsibility for our democracy.” Instead, it left people expecting that government would handle everything. So now, the government no longer threatens people with dire consequences for not picking up trash, and no one does. The city has been slow to create a normal garbage collection system. Maybe this forced community spirit stuff isn’t such a good idea after all.
The global shark population may be sharply declining, according to an article in the Washington Post. Actually, the article never quite gives a number for the global population, but it does warn that “something must be done to prevent sharks from disappearing from the planet.” And there are suggestive reports like this:
In March, a team of Canadian and U.S. scientists calculated that between 1970 and 2005, the number of scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks may have declined by more than 97 percent along the East Coast, and that the population of bull, dusky and smooth hammerhead sharks dropped by more than 99 percent. Globally, 16 percent of 328 surveyed shark species are described by the World Conservation Union as threatened with extinction.
Post reporter Juliet Eilperin notes that shark attacks can be big news, but in reality sharks kill about 4 people a year worldwide, while people kill “26 million to 73 million sharks annually.”
Why kill sharks To make money, of course, mostly for the Asian delicacy shark-fin soup. Shark fins are much more valuable than shark meat. Mexican shark hunters say they get $100 a kilogram for shark fins but only $1.50 a kilo for meat.
Unlike fish that reproduce in large numbers starting at an early age, most sharks take years to reach sexual maturity and produce only a few offspring at a time. Shark fishermen also tend to target pregnant females, which are more profitable because they are larger. As a result, said Michael Sutton, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, “there is no such thing as a sustainable shark fishery.”
So OK, here’s where Eilperin should have said, “Wait a minute . . . if there’s money to be made, why would greedy capitalists want to destroy the goose that lays the golden egg Shouldn’t they want to maximize their long-term profits ” And if she had, she might have run into a concept called “the tragedy of the commons.” Owners try to maximize the long-term value of their property. Timber owners don’t cut down all the trees and sell them this year; they cut and replant at a sustainable rate. But when people don’t own things, they have no incentive to maintain the long-term value. That’s why passenger pigeons went extinct, but chickens did not; why the buffalo was nearly exterminated but not the cow. (more…)
The New York Times reports that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history…in a process that is both brutal and legal.” In what way is this process legal The article never says. Presumably the Venezuelan congress has passed legislation authorizing the seizure and redistribution of land. But Chavez controls all 167 members of the National Assembly, and the Assembly has granted him the power to rule by decree. It’s hard to call anything in Venezuela “legal” at this point. One might as well say that Stalin’s executions or Pinochet’s disappearances were “legal.” (And by the way, have you noticed that the Times always refers to Pinochet as a dictator, but to Chavez and Fidel Castro as President or leader )
If the term “legal” has any meaning other than “the ruler has the power to do it,” then it means that something is done in accordance with the law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines law as “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.” One of the key elements of law is that it provides stability and certainty. I doubt that all the people of Venezuela recognize land seizures as proceeding in accordance with a body of rules. And certainly the arbitrary rule of a president or a rubber-stamp congress does not provide any certainty in the law.
At least the Times paused to tell us that the process was legal, even if it failed to specify just how. The Wall Street Journal article on the same topic doesn’t bother to consider the question of legality; perhaps that’s just a clearer recognition that in Venezuela there is no law, there is only Chavez.
And the rest of the Times article makes the process pretty clear:
The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own….
Mr. ChÃ¡vez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”
“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years….
But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.
The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.
John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy’s largest sugar-cane farm, is now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring states. “No one wants this property, of course, because they know we’re about to be invaded,” said Mr. Hines, 69….
“The double talk from the highest levels is absurd,” Mr. Machado said. “By enhancing the state’s power, the reforms we’re witnessing now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside.”
To be sure, the Times does stress the concentration of land ownership in Venezuela and the delight of many of the squatters at getting the seized land. But it’s a balanced article, other than that pesky word “legal.”
As I’ve written before, too many journalists are treating Chavez’s growing dictatorship in a guarded way. They report what’s happening — nationalizations, land seizures, the unanimous assembly, the rule by decree, the demand to repeal presidential term limits, the installation of military officers throughout the government, the packing of the courts — but they still treat it as normal politics and even report with a straight face that “Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy.” Some law, some democracy.
This Tuesday, May 1, Venezuelan ruler Hugo Chavez will take control “of Venezuela’s last remaining privately run oil projects.” The symbolism is obvious: the socialist May Day. Last year, Bolivian president Evo Morales sent his soldiers to occupy the gas fields in his country on May Day.
Perhaps 25 or 50 years from now, we will know whether Chile’s privatization or Bolivia’s and Venezuela’s nationalizations brought a higher standard of living to their citizens.