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Zimbabwe in America’s Future?

This morning one of the media lookouts at AIPnews.com drew attention to an article in the Washington Times about the awful conditions in Zimbabwe. In the article images of prison conditions there are likened to photos of inmates just after their liberation from the Nazi death camps. In addition to the horrid prison conditions, the country as a whole is in a state of collapse. “UN agencies estimate that up to three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s estimated 12 million people are malnourished and dependent on food aid. Critics blame bad governance and a land-distribution program that began in 1999 and has left a majority of farms idle. Until 2001, Zimbabwe was a net exporter of food.”

In the fall of 1980 I returned from Mumbai, India, my first posting as a foreign service officer, to take up my new chores as “desk officer” for the BLS countries (Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) and assistant desk officer for the newly minted nation of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). On the way, I stopped in New York to witness Zimbabwe’s admission to the United Nations (August 25, 1980), and got my first glimpse of the successful insurgent leader, Robert Mugabe. Over the years since, I’ve tried to keep up with the subject of my former responsibilities. Like some others, I watched with wary hope, then increasing dismay and grief, as stupid leftist ideology and political ambition overcame common sense and love of country to set Mugabe and his cronies on a path that ultimately destroyed Zimbabwe’s once flourishing economy and turned its promised constitutional system into a paradigmatic wasteland of tyranny and repression.

The shallow advocates of “majority rule” in southern Africa pretend that this is somehow just the result of the personal flaws and failings of Mugabe and the people around him, but this isn’t an adequate explanation. The very idea that the aim of just revolution is “majority rule” has to bear its share of the blame. Of course the socialist mentality that dominates all too many among America’s foreign policy elite (including the black elites that professed such burning interest in justice for blacks in southern Africa) tacitly approves the notion that unalloyed “majority rule” is a just and sustainable form of government. The short and tragic history of Zimbabwe is a classic illustration of why, as Artemus Ward might say, that notion is among “the things we know that just ain’t so.”

From ancient times (see for example Book VIII of Plato’s Republic) pure democracy has been identified as perhaps the most unstable form of government. It’s like a radioactive element with a short half-life fated to break down speedily into its next form. Under the influence of demagogues pure democracy declines to mob rule which feeds such a collapse of order and security that people literally beg for the iron hand of tyranny to rescue them from calamity. Years ago, as I helped to staff those who were participating in discussions about the political future of southern Africa, this often came to my mind. It tempered my enthusiasm for seemingly quick paths to black majority rule that paid no attention to the need for carefully considered institutions that would avoid the inevitable tendency of pure democracy to give birth to destructive tyranny. Later, as an Assistant Secretary of state, I gave a speech to the National Urban league that reflected these concerns. I was caricatured by the propaganda hit men of the left, derided as some kind of tool of intransigent, racist whites simply because I refused to forget that the productive cooperation of the white minority would be absolutely essential to the success of the new forms of government emerging in the region. (Though events have proven me right, to this day I am slurred by leftist blacks for showing this concern. For some people there is no sin more unforgivable than to see the truth before they do.)

In Zimbabwe this meant avoiding what I thought of as the tragic mistake of the Gracchi brothers, whose precipitous implementation of “land reforms” (redistribution of land from the aristocratic few to the land-poor majority) hastened the collapse of the Roman Republic. No historical parallels are exact, of course, but they can suggest principles to keep in mind. In Zimbabwe’s case this meant realizing that the imperative of economic and social success required respect for the demonstrated expertise and success of the several thousand white farming families whose adaptation of modern techniques had produced a little agricultural miracle. In countries large and small, the first prerequisite of economic development seems to be the sustained and efficient generation of large surpluses in the farm economy. The burgeoning urban areas so characteristic of rapidly expanding industrial and technological economies mean that expansive non-farm populations must be fed. Master this challenge, and there’s a solid foundation for sustained economic growth. Fail to master it (as for instance the old Soviet Union did) and even great natural advantages (arable land, metal and mineral resources, etc.) resist the possibility of material success.

The framers of Zimbabwe’s constitution needed to eschew sloganeered thinking about majority rule and devise ways to assure constitutional mechanisms that gave the white minority enough political clout to hamper any efforts simply to despoil them of their wealth. The result would have done more than avoid economic folly. It would have encouraged white/black coalitions that hampered the implementation of the kind of demagogic mob politics Mugabe has used to fortify his political power at the expense of his country’s happiness.

These days, Americans should not think of these reflections on Zimbabwe’s plight as curious thoughts about a distant misery. I have frequently made the point that, given his upbringing and ideology, Barack Obama doesn’t represent the heritage of Black Americans. In both respects, however, he more than adequately represents the characteristics of tragically failed socialist leaders in Africa, like Robert Mugabe. Can we see his politically motivated orgy of debt financed spending as the demagogue’s destructive disregard for the real well being of the nation? Can we see in his bid for dictatorial control of the economic sector preparation for the disastrous subordination of economic sense to political ambition? Though he is not alone in doing so (his sold-out Democrat and Republican colleagues share in his actions) will his calculated acts of “creative destruction” turn the once flourishing strength of the American people into a wrecked and timorous shadow of its former self? On all sides, the political elite in this country seemed ready to abandon the constitutional system of self-government in favor of a mobocratic implementation of pure democracy that temporarily allows demagogues to flourish, while they rape and pillage the hopes of the people they mislead. Is there more than a little Zimbabwe in our future?

Worth considering? Then don’t forget to DIGG IT!!!!

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • chiu_chunling April 2, 2009, 5:07 pm

    Very cleverly done, an April Fool April Fools.

    I thought the only way to do that was to go the whole day without lying and then tell somebody that you properly engaged in April Fooling.

  • The Localmalcontent April 1, 2009, 11:11 pm

    OH. My. Goodness.
    Sir, all this time, I thought this blog was written by Alan Combes, formerly of ‘Hannity and Combes’.
    I am sorry, to have mistaken the two of you, and your authorship here,Ambassador.

    Keyes, Combes: Both of those things have ‘teeth’ and all.

    In parting, Dr. Keyes,

    “April Fools~!”

  • chiu_chunling March 31, 2009, 2:05 pm

    “For some people there is no sin more unforgivable than to see the truth before they do.”

    Perhaps you should say, ‘declare the truth that they would deny.’ After all, there are still many who don’t blame the very concept of the land transfer program but insist that it was only poorly managed.

    It might be well to clarify that the concern here is not and never was the protection of a white minority, but rather preservation of property rights and the principles of law. There are many who refuse to understand that it is only the principles of private property and equality before the law that can ever create prosperity and liberty. Nevertheless, it is not the whiteness of the displaced farmers that should attract our attention but the violation of the fundamentals of a law-abiding government.

    As for the future of the United States, you will have cause to envy Zimbabwe the cultural cohesion which has allowed it to pause at the brink of complete economic collapse and internecine warfare. The less coherent and far more technologically dependent culture of the United States affords much less of a safety margin before utter disaster. Do not comfort yourselves with the prospect of having months to slowly die of malnutrition in an ineptly administered prison on trumped up charges. Most Americans will see no charges, no administration, and no months.

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