Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Keeping the World Poor

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 7, 2003 --  

Perhaps the most tragic, yet least discussed consequence of the West's terrorism-inspired war footing is the extension of poverty for most people on earth. This may sound overstated, yet it is merely the consequence of allowing the tragic status quo. Since the apex of the industrial revolution 50 years ago, most inhabitants of the developed world have enjoyed standards of living that historically could not even be obtained by kings. But these lifestyles are not widely enjoyed in most countries on the planet, where billions of people continue to subsist in often miserable ways that haven't changed much since the dawn of agriculture.

The rich world's investment in undeveloped areas declined sharply after the end of the colonial era, and Cold War politics often helped corrupt dictators rob the third world blind rather than build it up. A brief decade of progress emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991. Superpower support for their proxy despots dried up, lessening corruption and reducing support for destructive experiments with socialist-led development. During this time, the embrace of globalist free trade policies in the developed world gave hope that much of humanity could join its ranks within a few generations.

America's responses to the attacks on New York and Washington have dashed these hopes. America's constant war footing has been adopted to a lesser extent by the rest of the developed world. Support for corrupt dictators is back -- provided that they pledge to be allies in the "war on terror." Support for free trade and open markets have taken a distant back seat to security concerns. Further American economic integration with Mexico, for example, has been stalled for over a year, as have plans for a free trade area of the Americas.

These changes mean that it will take much longer for living standards to improve in undeveloped countries. This means a continuation of a terrible dichotomy -- as technology allows the developed world to grow ever richer, most of humanity remains stuck in pre-industrial impoverishment.

Ironically, the West has chosen to let this happen in response to attacks by conservative religious fanatics who oppose many of the Western cultural traits that make the rich world possible. As the West relegates billions of people to poverty for the sake of its own security, it betrays many of the liberal values it is supposed to be fighting to protect.

Of course, today's huge disparity will not last forever. There is no secret to what makes the developed economies rich, and given time, all people on earth will be able to be part of a wealthy society, provided nobody stands in the way. If there is a silver lining to the very dark cloud that hangs over the undeveloped world, it is the possibility of eliminating some of those who currently do stand in the way.

America's otherwise terribly destructive war plans provide a very slight chance that the Iraqi dictatorship could be replaced by a much more liberal regime. If this long-shot outcome actually materializes, it would offer both a model and hope to the one billion strong (and largely impoverished) population of the Arab world. In the best-case scenario, a handful of Arab dictators who stand in the way of modernization might be swept aside.

But such changes are unlikely to happen as long as the West continues to value loyal dictators and secure borders more than it does liberal regimes and economically open borders. The West, and America in particular, must abandon its new policies and offer unwavering support for open societies around the world. Until this changes, the world's shameful disparities are only likely to grow.