Monday, January 21, 2008

Hippos and Cheetahs

Having spent part of my childhood growing up in Africa, I will always have a special affection for the continent. I will not mention the African Nations Cup that started in Ghana yesterday. But I will mention a widely distributed lecture by the Ghanaian economist George Ayittey that I saw at Greg Laden's site. The talk seems to have drawn great reviews from most people, but I have both a trivial and a serious disagreement with it - simple evolutionary principles explain both.

The minor disagreement regards the economist's choice of analogy. The headline of the piece is Hippos and Cheetahs, and the speaker pushes the basic theme that many African nations that gained independence in the latter half of the twentieth century have behaved like the slow lumbering hippo whereas they need to behave like the modern dynamic cheetah. That sounds unquestionable.

But cheetahs are not modern. And cheetahs are not doing so well. There are only small numbers left in the wild. Despite their great speed, they are able to kill only a few specific kinds of small antelope. Even when they manage to catch one, they are easily chased off the kill by lions or hyenas or packs of wild dogs, and these other animals have a much broader range of diet anyway. Basically, the most successful genes are not necessarily located in the fastest animals but in the most adaptable. In the long run, adaptability is key to success.

That was trivial. My major disagreement is about the ferocity of attack upon the "post-colonial" economic systems of the newly independent states. The speaker lamented the lack of economic progress and was angry about "swiss bank socialism" where much of the wealth of the continent was expatriated to Europe. This was a justified argument, but the speech then degenerated into a generic attack on any form of socialism or market restrictions.

But hold on a minute George, the theft of Africa's resources is not a "post-colonial" issue - the expatriation of wealth was surely even more significant when much of Africa was ruled by European states? The real issue that he touches upon (without considering the implication) is the immense centralisation of power and resources in very few people. So in a land where much of the population is still hovering around the border between poverty and famine, there may still be a case for actively seeking wealth redistribution as well as economic freedom. You cannot separate the economic from the political. We cannot just transfer limited resources from an unelected dictator to an unelected monopoly. Economic freedom needs to evolve at the same time as economic controls.

After all, hippos may well survive and prosper for much longer than cheetahs.


v!sh said...

Mere survival is not worth anything. And prosperity does not look around the corner

R N B said...

Yes, even bacteria survive. But even amongst mammals like us, prosperity does not require you to be a superslim sprinter.