By Togba-Nah Tipoteh, PhD
Since earning my doctorate degree in economics at the age of 27, and I am now 79 years of age, I have written in the public space on numerous local and global issues and problems, as well as provided solutions to societal problems, based on historical experience. A year ago, the Liberian Economy Group (LEG), chaired by me and composed of some highly qualified Liberian professionals, presented its Report on the Liberian Economy, free of charge, to all government and non-government leaders, the general public and to foreign partners. These professionals are: Mr. David Vinton, MBA; Mrs. Estelle Liberty, MSc; Dr. Geepu Nah Tiepoh, PhD and Mr. Amin Modad, MBA.
In the face of credible information to the effect that the surge of the coronavirus pandemic has reached nearly 80 million cases and nearly 2 million deaths globally, I have become placed in a Wake-Up state. This state of mind is also informed by the growing income inequalities within countries and between countries, where In 1820 the income and wealth ratio between the top 20% of the world’s population and the bottom 20% was 3:1; now, the ratio is almost 90:1 (WB/IMF). Such massive poverty is occurring while 22,000 children die daily in the world from poverty (UNICEF), when it takes USD60 billion, 25% of the income and wealth of the 100 richest billionaires in the world, to end extreme poverty (OXFAM). However, all is not lost as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has eliminated extreme poverty in this year, having reduced the PRC poverty rate from 88% to less than 1% in 40 years (Asian Development Bank).
The foregoing state of mind leads me to write this Commentary: Community-Interest Not Self-Interest, in the expectation that it will be a positive contribution to raising awareness in ways that motivate people to take actions in their collective interest. Throughout history, the principal concern of human beings continues to be survival. Generally, human beings prefer to save lives than to commit suicide. In the observation of human beings, two types of decision-making have emerged: decision-making for self-interest and decision-making for community-interest.
In his observation of human beings, the Scottish Economist Adam Smith, the Founder of Modern Economics, concluded in his path-breaking book, The Wealth of Nations (1776), that human beings are driven mainly by self-interest and therefore the best system for economic growth and development is laissez-passez/laissez-faire/free enterprise, all meaning the same thing. Examining the facts of history, one finds out that access to enter the market place and control the ballot box was free only for the rich. During the era of Smith, when the workers tried to get access to enter the market place and control the ballot box, the Powers That Be used violence to prevent them from entry. Free enterprise became synonymous with capitalism and Smith’s Ideology of self-interest became the ideological justification for capitalism.
Prior to the time of Smith, the pursuit of self-interest led to the slave trade. The greed of rulers in Africa led them to sell some human beings to greedy slave owners from the United States of America (USA) who needed the slaves to work on the cotton plantations in the USA. Hundreds of thousands of slaves got killed during the slave trade from the violent treatment that they received from the slave owners. On account of the movement to free the slaves, informed by the 1791 revolt against slavery in Saint Dominique, now called Haiti, and the advance in technology that led to mechanization in the cotton industry, there was much less need for slaves. Therefore, slave owners formed an organization called the American Colonization Society (ACS) that repatriated some freed slaves to Africa by 1822. Many of these freed slaves landed in the area now called Liberia, after the former slaves declared the area to be a Republic in1847. Constitutional rights were not given to the indigenous people of Liberia until after the Second World War.
It is recorded in history that Liberia has the world record for the holding of faked elections (Guinness Book of Records), established during the election of 1927 in Liberia. Subsequently, Liberia was taken to the League of Nations by some indigenous persons on the grounds that the President of Liberia was heading a business in which indigenous people from Liberia were sold as slaves to work in Fernando Po. The historical record on the Liberian economy in the 1950s shows that the Liberian economy exhibited the second highest economic growth per capita rate in the world but less that one per cent of the people accounted for over 60 per cent of Liberia’s income and wealth, leading to a syndrome that is referred to as economic growth without economic development or growth without development for short (Robert Clower, et al, 1966).
Despite the fact that the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA) raised alarm publicly about the high likelihood that the income and wealth inequality in Liberia, with the attendant poverty generation, would lead to the use of poverty as the pretext for violence by greedier persons, the Powers That Be paid no heed to this alarm and the Civil War hit Liberia in which at least 250,000 people (ten per cent of the population at the time) died and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure got damaged and the economy remains unrecovered to the pre-war state. After the Smith time, another example of greed emerged with the ownership of Belgian Congo, an area in Africa equal to the size of western Europe, by King Leopold of Belgium. Under this ownership, at least 10 million Belgian Congolese died from slave treatment.
Alternatively, in terms of the Economist Smith, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels of Germany, in The Communist Manifesto (1848), concluded that “The history of all hitherto society is the history of class struggle”. They went on to say that this class struggle will end up with the ending of capitalism and the emergence of a classless society, a socialist society. Vladimir Lenin of Russia, in his writings. concluded that the world of capitalism was experiencing the centralization and internationalization of capital, exhibiting collaboration with the writings of Marx and Engels, resulting in the formation of an ideology called Marxism-Leninism. The main example of socialism prior to the Second World War was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In the war between Germany and the USSR, involving Great Britain and France, and subsequently the USA. known as World War Two, 80 million people died, not forgetting the infrastructural damage that led to the launching of the European recovery plan that came to be known as the Marshall Plan.
Rising awareness about inequalities evolved in the Soviet Union, especially when looking at the USSR relationship with Poland, as the Workers Movement led by Mr. Lech Walensa engaged in activities that ended up in the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the “breaking up” of the USSR, the main part of which is now Russia. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), which has now become the second-largest economy in the world, is another example of socialism. Then there is the socialist example of Cuba with life expectancy moving from 33.2 in 1900 to 78.9 in 2010, being the world leader of the percentage of medical doctors to population, 150 in 100,00 for the start of the twenty-first century, through progress in the elimination of HIV/AIDS and for direct health support to other countries during the ebola outbreak (Wikipedia/ABC News, November 29, 2016)
Another alternative, this time with respect to Marx, is the work of the French Economist, Thomas Piketty, as seen in his book Capital and Ideology (Harvard University Press, 2020). In his book, the Economist Piketty concludes that the main struggle throughout history is not class struggle, the struggle between capital and labor, but “the struggle between ideologies and the quest for justice” (p1035). According to Piketty, the struggle between ideologies can be observed historically in the evidence on income and wealth inequalities that he refers to as inequality regimes. Piketty indicates that his goal is: “To enable citizens to reclaim possession of economic and historical knowledge”(p1041). Unlike Smith and Marx, Piketty provides no societal system to attend to the problem of income inequalities that he presents. While Piketty claims to be promotive of the citizens’ reclaiming of economic and historical knowledge, he terms the current state of capitalism “hypercapitalism” and calls the current state of socialism “disastrous”. which in effect are his conclusions.
In the time between Smith and Piketty, several well-known economists have appeared, writing on variations on capitalism. There was the Economist John Maynard Keynes of Great Britain who called for considerable government intervention in the economy to promote recovery and growth, through his best known book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936). In the landmark book, The Great Transformation, by Economist Karl Polanyi of Hungary, he argued that it is community interest over individual interest that remains the way forward for societal transformation. Then there was the Economist Milton Friedman of the USA who insisted that Freedom of Choice is the way to get the economy to recover and grow rather than government intervention, regulation or control. With the persistence of the income and wealth inequalities within countries and between countries, one wonders as to the Truth in the foregoing conclusion. Furthermore, let us recall the International Financial Crisis of 2008, where the former Chairperson of the Federal Reserve of the USA, Alan Greenspan, supported deregulation, as seen in the operation of the sub-prime market within the decision-making of the Stock Market. Such operation led to the 2008 Crisis, now called the Great Recession, becoming the worst International Financial Crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Economist Friedman’s call for Freedom of Choice runs into problems when people say that they want the right to choose but they have no power to choose. The commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights as held in Paris, France. concluded that Constitutions in general have excellent human rights provisions but they are not implemented around the world. In effect, the Paris Conclusion indicates that the Powers That Be who benefit from the power-generating system in countries are not about to implement human rights provisions that would lead to poverty-alleviation, as such runs counter to their self-interest.
Responding to the global initiative of the 15 year old Greta Thunberg of Sweden, during the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Forum (actually founded in January 1971), the Organizer of the World Economic Forum indicated that in our one world faced with the numerous global problems, especially climate change, the focus for economic growth should now be on stakeholdership rather than shareholdership. Stakeholdership involves the participation of the Community, meaning farmers, labor, women, youth and civil society entities, while shareholdership refers to the participation of self-interest entities.
There were encouraging signs when the two biggest producers of carbon emission, the USA and the PRC were among over 100 countries to sign the Climate Change Accord in Paris, France only to have the USA, under President Trump, pull out of the Accord. The election of Mr, Joseph Biden provides evidence that the USA will return to the Accord on Climate Change as well to the Accord on Nuclear Energy from which the Trump administration withdrew the participation of the USA.
History has taught us through the ebola virus epidemic and the corona pandemic that action speaks louder than words and the observation of action provides the Truth to solve problems. When the community residents receive knowledge in ways that motivate them to take non-violent actions in the community- interest, they take such actions and that is how the ebola problem ended and it is highly likely that the corona problem will end in the same way. The PRC which is considered to be the country in which the coronavirus first appeared has now provided anti-corona assistance to nearly 100 countries, developed and developing, and is recovering to the point where extreme poverty in the PRC has been eliminated this year.
There are challenges in each part of the capitalist/socialist divide. Whether or not the challenges occur through the work of the Trilateral Commission, led by the Group of Six (USA, Canada, Germany, France, Great Britain and Japan) or that of the Politburo in the Communist Parties of Russia and the PRC, or the racism in the USA, scientific evaluation demands focusing on the most important element for eliminating poverty-generation and promoting poverty-alleviation. In this direction, it is instructive to note that the People’s Republic of China has eliminated extreme poverty in the PRC this year, thereby making an enormous contribution to poverty-alleviation, violence prevention and global peace.
It is through the observation of actions in history that my background as Founding Leader of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), Chairperson of the Servants of Africa Fighting Epidemics (SAFE) and the work on my doctoral dissertation, Negative Taxation and Work Effort, Implications for Poverty Alleviation, plus my experience as Founder and Board Chairperson Of Susukuu, the 49 year-old poverty alleviation NGO, have enabled me to come up with the conclusion: Community-Interest Not Self-Interest is the way forward for the better that brings justice, the only ingredient for sustainable peace, with the attendant improvements in mass living conditions to eliminate income and wealth inequalities. Community-Interest is implemented through Democracy, the institutionalization of the sustainable participation of at least the majority of the people in decision-making that affects them, Hopefully, my use of knowledge is done in a way that motivates people, especially the poor, to take non-violent collective actions to change the poverty-generating system into the poverty-alleviation system.
Acknowledgment: Expressions of appreciation go to Dr. Brahima Kaba, Dr. Geepu Nah Tiepoh and Mr. Kpanneh Doe for their pre-publication comments on this Commentary.