Free at Last?

"Free at Last," said U.S. News and World Report in a cover story on South Africa. It seems the entire world was elated by the sight of South Africa's black citizens lining up to vote for the first time in their history. But as columnist Walter Williams writes, "our joy should be tempered." The African National Congress, which was swept into power, has long been Communist dominated. And the history of communism in Africa is anything but pretty. African nations first began gaining independence in the 1950s. Many of the new governments were inspired by Communist or socialist models. They aggressively took over key industries and discouraged private businesses. But the record of African socialism has been dismal. The United Nations Human Development index of overall well-being shows that three quarters of the 50 worst-off nations in the world are in Africa. Why has socialism failed so miserably? The answer is simple: When government officials control the economy, they are tempted to siphon off the nation's wealth for political purposes. Instead of reinvesting profits into growing more food or producing more refrigerators, political leaders often divert money into grandiose schemes to make themselves look good. For example, in the Central African Republic, former President Bokassa enhanced his image by spending millions to open the nation's first television station. Yet virtually no one in his impoverished nation owned a TV set. Zaire's President Mobutu has spent millions of dollars on public stadiums to stage his political activities. He even constructed an international-class runway near his home village so he can fly home in Boeing jets. A few years ago the Ethiopian government celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Ethiopian Revolution, while suppressing news of the famine already raging in the country. Marxist strongman Mengistu spent $100 million on monuments, buildings, and decorations—while his people starved. Then there's Ghana, where government officials bought up a host of industries from steel mills to airports. Today the government is placing these enterprises on the auction block and selling them off. What this illustrates is that every economic system has a moral dimension. Economics is about the ways we organize and develop resources to meet human needs. A system that enables us to meet human needs more effectively—to feed the hungry and clothe the poor—is a compassionate system. In a free market, the people running business enterprises have economic expertise and economic interests. That means they have an incentive to plow profits back into the business to make it grow and prosper—bringing wealth and jobs to an entire region. But under socialism, the people running the economy are politicians. And they're more likely to divert profits into political purposes that do little to help the economy prosper. So let's applaud South Africa for taking a major step toward human rights. But let's watch for the next step with guarded optimism. That beleaguered nation now has the option of what kind of economic system it will install—and what kind of moral vision it will follow.


Chuck Colson


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