I next spent a few years (1983 to 1986) in Tanzania, a country that presented another experiment in treating poverty as a matter of maldistribution. Julius Nyerere, the first—and, until then, the only—president, had been in charge for more than 20 years. His honorific, Mwalimu—Teacher—symbolized his relation to his country and his people. He had become a Fabian socialist at the University of Edinburgh, and a more red-blooded one (according to his former ally and foreign minister, Oscar Kambona, who fell out with him over the imposition of a one-party socialist state) after receiving a delirious, orchestrated reception in Mao’s China.
One can say a number of things in Nyerere’s favor, at least by the standards of postindependence African leaders. He was not a tribalist who awarded all the plum jobs to his own kind. He was not a particularly sanguinary dictator, though he did not hesitate to imprison his opponents. Nor was he spectacularly corrupt in the manner of, say, Bongo of Gabon or Moi of Kenya. He was outwardly charming and modest and must have been one of the only people to have had good personal relations with both Queen Elizabeth II and Kim Il-sung.
Nyerere wished the poor well; he was full of sympathy and good intentions. He thought that, being so uneducated, ignorant, and lacking in resources, the poor could not spare the time and energy—and were, in any case, unqualified—to make decisions for themselves. They were also lazy: Nyerere at one point complained about the millions of his fellow countrymen who spent half their time drinking, gossiping, and dancing (which suggested to me that their lives were not altogether intolerable).
But Nyerere knew what to do for them. In 1967, he issued his famous Arusha Declaration, named for the town where he made it, committing Tanzania to socialism and vowing to end the exploitation of man by man that made some people rich and others poor. On this view of things, the greater accumulation of wealth, either by some individuals or by some nations, could be explained only by exploitation, a morally illicit process. The explanation for poverty was simple: some people or nations appropriated the natural wealth of mankind for themselves. It was therefore a necessary condition of improvement, as well as a form of restitution, that they no longer be allowed to do so and that their wealth be redistributed. So Tanzania nationalized the banks, appropriated commercial farms, took over all major industry, controlled prices, and put all export trade under the control of paragovernmental organizations.
There followed the forced collectivization of the rural population—which is to say, the majority of the population—into Ujamaa villages. Ujamaa is Swahili for “extended family”; as Nyerere insisted, all men were brothers. By herding the people into collectivized villages, Nyerere thought, the government could provide services, such as schools and clinics. After all, rich countries had educated and healthy populations; was it not evident that if the Tanzanian people were educated and healthy, wealth would result? Besides, collectively the villagers could buy fertilizer, perhaps even tractors, which they never could have done as individuals (assuming, as Nyerere did, that without government action there would be no economic growth). Unfortunately, the people did not want to herd fraternally into villages; they wanted to stay put on their scattered ancestral lands. Several thousand were arrested and imprisoned.
The predictable result of these efforts at preventing the exploitation of man by man was the collapse of production, pauperizing an already poor country. Tanzania went from being a significant exporter of agricultural produce to being utterly dependent on food imports, even for subsistence, in just a few years. Peasants who had once grown coffee and sold it to Indian merchants for soap, salt, and other goods uprooted their bushes and started growing meager amounts of corn for their own consumption. No reason existed for doing anything else because growers now had to sell their produce to paragovernmental procurement agencies, which paid them later, if at all, at derisory prices in a worthless currency that peasants called “pictures of Nyerere.”
Nyerere blamed shortages of such commonplaces as soap and salt on speculators and exploiters, rather than on his own economic policies. He made the shortages the pretext for so-called crackdowns, often directed at Indian traders, which eventually drove them from the country. Nyerere’s policies were no more soundly based than those of Idi Amin, who drove out the Indians more brutally. Anti-Semitism, it has often been said, is the socialism of fools. I would put things another way: socialism is the anti-Semitism of intellectuals.
With foreign exchange exhausted, only the funds that the honey-tongued Nyerere continued to obtain from the World Bank and foreign donors enabled the country to avoid mass starvation. By the time I reached Tanzania, the country had become completely dependent on handouts. Aid represented two-thirds of Tanzania’s foreign-exchange earnings; one might say that its largest export was requests for such aid. In the rural area where I lived, the people dressed in hand-me-downs sent by European charities. A single egg was a luxury. One of the goals that had induced Nyerere to move to socialism, ironically, was national “self-reliance.”
The foreign aid that allowed Nyerere’s policies to continue well after the economic disaster was evident had precisely the baleful effects that Peter Bauer, the development economist who contradicted the professional orthodoxies of his time, predicted. The aid immensely increased the power of the sole political party by giving its officials control over scarce goods. When I was in Tanzania, you needed political connections to buy even a bottle of beer—the famous local monopoly brand, Safari, which, the saying went, caused you to pass directly from sobriety to hangover without passing through drunkenness. The regime provided ample opportunities for corruption. Most Tanzanians were slender; you could recognize a party man by his girth.
Thanks to foreign aid, a large bureaucracy grew up in Tanzania whose power, influence, and relative prosperity depended on its keeping the economy a genuine zero-sum game. A vicious circle had been created: the more impoverished the country, the greater the need for foreign aid; the greater the foreign aid, the more privileged the elite; the more privileged the elite, the greater the adherence to policies that resulted in poverty. Nyerere himself made the connection between privilege and ruinous policies perfectly clear after the International Monetary Fund suggested that Tanzania float its currency, the Tanzanian shilling, rather than maintain it at a ridiculously overvalued rate. “There would be rioting in the streets, and I would lose everything I have,” Nyerere said.
Long years of living under this perverse regime encouraged economically destructive attitudes among the general population. While I was impressed by the sacrifices that Tanzanian parents were willing to make to educate their children (for a child to attain a certain stage of education, for example, a party official had to certify the parents’ political reliability), it alarmed me to discover that the only goal of education was a government job, from which a child could then extort a living from people like his parents—though not actually from his parents, for he would share his good fortune with them. In Tanzania, producing anything, despite the prevailing scarcity of almost everything, became foolish, for it brought no reward.
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