From Poverty to Riches: Is There a Magic Elixir?

From The President’s Desk
Published in Ideas on Liberty
July 2002

by Mark Skousen

“The problem of making poor countries rich was much more difficult than we thought.”

—William Easterly, World Bank1

“If there is one formula for our success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better.”

—Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister, Singapore2

William Easterly has spent his entire adult life working for the World Bank, living in the Third World, and helping poor countries develop into rich countries. You would think he would severely lecture the World Bank and his fellow economists about the dumb policies governments have pursued.

Instead, Easterly throws his hands in the air and offers no clues to the “elusive” quest for growth. He confirms a few economic truths, such as “incentives matter” and “government can kill growth,” but ultimately he thinks luck has as much to do with it as anything. “There are no magic elixirs,” he sighs. The almighty empirical evidence solemnly declares it. Foreign aid doesn’t work. Foreign investment doesn’t work. High savings don’t work. Investment in machinery doesn’t work. Education doesn’t work. Technology doesn’t work. Tax cuts don’t work. All have failed to live up to expectations. It’s time for the economist to be humbled: “It’s very, very hard to predict success in sports, music, and politics—as well as in economics.”3

Over the years I have witnessed a split in the economics profession. Some adhere to the view that we live in an Age of Ignorance; that we know very little about how the world economy really operates and what government policies should be pursued. They are in large measure armchair critics and doubting Thomases.4 Others believe we live in an Age of Enlightenment; that despite maddening uncertainties about the marketplace, we do know with some assurance how a freely competitive market economy works and we have learned a great deal about what governments should and should not do. It is sad commentary to see that despite his honesty, Easterly, a seasoned veteran in the war on world poverty, tends to fall into the former category. He certainly lost an opportunity to clear the air and reveal the root causes and cures of poverty.

Singapore’s Economic Miracle

Perhaps one reason Easterly’s story ends in tragedy is that he apparently spent too much time in failed economies and not enough time in successful ones. I notice that his book says almost nothing about Chile, the economic model of Latin America, or the Four Tigers—Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Contrast Easterly’s confused story with Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiographical account of Singapore. Lee became president of the tiny, poverty-stricken British colony after it was granted independence in 1965. In one generation, he oversaw its transformation into an Asian giant with the world’s number-one airline, best airport, busiest port of trade, and the world’s fourth-largest per capita real income.

How did this economic miracle happen?

First, Lee offered real leadership. He was a seminal figure in Asia who accomplished extraordinary things. He built an army from scratch, won over the unions, and destroyed the communists after the British left a vacuum. Despite strong opposition, he insisted on making English one of four official spoken languages, knowing it was fast becoming the language of international business. Singapore, like other Southeast Asian countries, was known for its nepotism, favoritism, and covert corruption; Lee cleaned up the courts, police, and immigration and customs offices. Today Singapore is ranked as the least corrupt country in Asia. Singapore was also dirty, so Lee began a “clean and green” campaign. Rivers, canals, and drains were cleaned up and millions of trees, palms, and shrubs were planted.

The Lee government tore down dilapidated shacks and replaced them with high-rise apartments. He imposed law and order by demanding severe sentences for murder and other crimes. Today Singapore ranks no. 1 in the world for security. To reduce traffic congestion, a huge problem in Asian cities, Singapore built an underground subway system, and imposed an electronic road-pricing program. Every vehicle has a “smart card” on its windshield, and the toll amount varies with the road used and the time of day. During rush hour, the price goes up. “Since the amount people pay now depends upon how much they use the roads, the optimum number of cars can be owned with the minimum of congestion.”5 A sound economic principle!

Lee rejected Soviet-style central planning and domestic heavy industry, although he did target certain industries for development. He focused on a two-pronged plan to advance Singapore: First, his government encouraged domestic industry to leap over their neighbors and link up with the developed world of America, Europe, and Japan, and tried to attract their manufacturers to produce in Singapore. Second, Lee wished to create a First World oasis in the Third World by establishing top standards in security, health, education, communications, and transportation, and a government offering a stable currency, low taxes, and free trade. Singapore would become a “base camp” for multinational corporations from around the world. And, after years of effort, it worked.

Under Lee’s brilliant leadership, Singapore has advanced far beyond anyone’s dreams. Yet we cannot ignore his mistakes—his paternalistic strong-arm tactics, his interventionist targeting of industries, his forced saving programs, his denial of a free press, and his excessive punishments for certain crimes. It will be interesting to see how Singapore performs, both as a people and economy, after Lee Kuan Yew is gone. We can only hope that economic freedom will lead to political liberty.

1. William Easterly, The Elusive Quest for Growth (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), p. 291.
2. Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000 (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), p. 687.
3. Easterly, p. 208. Despite Easterly’s failure to come to any clear conclusions, his book offers an honest and often entertaining appraisal of development literature.
4. See my columns, “Is This the Age of Ignorance—or Enlightenment?,” June 1994; “European Unemployment: The Age of Ignorance, Part II,” January 1995; and “The Age of Confusion,” August 1995.
5. Lee, p. 206.

Mark Skousen is president of FEE.

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