As President Bush visits five African countries this week, a specter haunts the continent--the specter of starvation. At least 2.5 million Zambians currently face famine, as do millions more across southern Africa--in Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The United Nations estimates that more than 14 million Africans face possible starvation by March 2003.
According to the comprehensive 2001 Index of Economic Freedom, sub-Sahara Africa "remains...by far the poorest...area in the world." In Ethiopia, per capita GNP is estimated at $108. In Sierra Leone the figure is $146; in Mozambique $178; in Tanzania $180. By contrast, the per capita GNP in the United States exceeds $30,000.
Most people forget that pre-industrial Europe was vastly poorer than contemporary Africa and had a much lower life expectancy. Even a relatively well-off country like France is estimated to have suffered seven general famines in the 15th century, thirteen in the 16th, eleven in the 17th and sixteen in the 18th. And disease was rampant. Given an utter lack of sanitation, the bubonic plague, typhus and other diseases recurred incessantly into the 18th century, killing tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands at a time.
The effect on life expectancy was predictable. In parts of France, in the middle of the 17th century, only 58 percent reached their 15th birthday, and life expectancy was 20. In Ireland, life expectancy in 1800 was a mere 19 years. In early 18th century London, more than 74 percent of the children died before reaching age five.
Then a dramatic change occurred throughout Europe. The population of England doubled between 1750 and 1820, with childhood mortality dropping to 31.8 percent by 1830. Something happened that enabled people to stay alive.
What did that early period lack that the later period had? Capitalism. What does Africa lack that the West has? Capitalism. It is capitalism that enabled the West to rise to great prosperity. The lack of capitalism is responsible for Africa's crushing poverty. What is capitalism? It is an economic system in which all property is privately owned, a system without government regulation and government handouts. It is a free economy, a system in which individuals are free to produce, to trade, and to make--and keep--a profit.
Capitalism is a social system based on individual rights, the right of every individual to his life, his liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness. The thinkers of the Enlightenment, including John Locke and the Founding Fathers, brought these ideas to the forefront in Europe and America. The result was an economic revolution, which--in a relatively brief time--transformed the West from a poverty-stricken region to one of great productive wealth. This system of freedom liberated the most creative minds of Western society, resulting in a torrent of innovations--from James Watt's steam engine to Louis Pasteur's germ theory to Henry Ford's automobile to the Wright Brothers' airplane and much more. This new freedom, and the Industrial Revolution it spawned, resulted in vast increases in agricultural and industrial production.
Creative minds--from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs--flourish only under freedom. The result is new products, new jobs, new wealth, in short: the furtherance of life on earth, in length, quantity and quality. Under the kings, theocracies, military dictatorships and socialist regimes that dominate Africa, such minds are stifled. The result is stagnation, poverty and death.
Africa has the identical natural resource fundamentally responsible for the West's rise: the human mind. But it has neither the freedom nor the Enlightenment philosophy of reason, individualism and political liberty necessary for creating wealth and health. Africa is mired in tribal cultures that stress subordination to the group rather than personal independence and achievement. All over the continent brutal dictators murder and rob innocent citizens in order to aggrandize themselves and members of their tribes.
What Africa desperately needs is to remove the political and economic shackles and replace them with political and economic freedom. It needs to depose the military dictators and socialist regimes and establish capitalism, with its political/economic freedom, its rule of law and respect for individual rights. And to accomplish that, it first needs to remove the philosophic shackles and replace tribal collectivism with a philosophy of reason and freedom. The truly humanitarian system is not the Marxism espoused by Western intellectuals but the only system that can establish, as it historically has, the furtherance of life on earth: capitalism.