Archive | April, 2018

The moral case for a free market in a society with past discrimination

Is there a moral case for a free market where a significant portion of the population has by law for years been excluded from the economy? In short, can we justify a free market in South Africa in circumstances where there was an apartheid economy with group areas, inferior education, job reservation and all other manner of similar prejudice to black people?

It must be understood what possible justification there is for the alternative. State intervention is purportedly justified on the basis that it is necessary and effective in redressing the wrongs of the past. Here we have in mind things like affirmative action, black economic empowerment, labour laws, welfare grants paid by the state and lately, expropriation of property without compensation. A free market is all very well, those in favour of the alternative might say, but only once redress has restored justice between the different groups.

One potential difficulty in criticising the latter argument is that one is often, if not invariably, driven to a utilitarian argument relying on the practical economic results of a free market and state intervention, and arguing that the former is more effective in bringing about redress. Which it is. (Without going into the argument in detail, economically unfree markets are inefficient, resulting in suppressing growth of jobs and income, undermining the very aim of redressing disadvantages.)

The question addressed here is whether there is an a priori moral argument in favour of the free market in these circumstances, and is it persuasive?

To start, let’s define our terms. A free market is a market in which people have freedom of contract and the right to protection of private property legally acquired – that is, through free, voluntary exchange of property or labour, or inheritance of property similarly acquired. In such a system the state does not intervene by prohibiting or prescribing any contractual terms, or confiscating property. The state’s commercial role is limited to maintaining and enforcing the law of contract and property.

Voluntary agreement as a means to dispose over people’s goods and work, must as a rule trump the use of force (whether by individuals or by government). Highly convincing reasons need to be supplied to justify departing from voluntary agreement as a mechanism.

As a mechanism of protecting disposal over property and work by agreement, a free market is an extension of two desirable human states: human freedom and human dignity. An important aspect of both states is the ability of humans to determine their own destiny, in particular their own economic destiny. Self-determination through freedom of choice is a fundamental manifestation both freedom and dignity.

Two things are clear: Firstly, it is hard to conceive of any human being arguing that his or her freedom and dignity are not fundamentally important. And secondly, by its very nature a right to either must be universally accorded. One person cannot morally claim the right to either dignity or freedom for himself to the exclusion of others. That would not be freedom, and it would not be dignity. It would be arbitrary tyranny.

The universal principle that the law must not be arbitrary, is a manifestation of this principle. That is the cornerstone of what we know as the rule of law, namely that subjects are ruled by objective law, not arbitrary whims of people. This principle demands that all citizens are treated as equal before the law.

An apparent exception may be that individuals may be ordered by a court of law to relinquish their freedom, or undergo the indignity of imprisonment, or give up property (fines/compensation) in proportion to the extent to which any of them has infringed another’s freedom, dignity, property and so on.  As such it is only a quasi-exception, because it is done in service of the universal rights that have been infringed. Then it goes without saying that such redress must be done on a relevant, objective and non-arbitrary basis.

This moral principle also requires that any such limitation must be predictable in result and extent.

The state can and should be empowered to protect dignity and freedom. The right to freedom cannot be arbitrary, or be granted by the whim of the state or its officials.

Nor can dignity be protected piecemeal, or only for some, without offending against the same principle.

What is the moral underpinning of these rights? What is their source?

Without postulating a deity who wrote these rights on tablets of stone, where do they come from?

We certainly know where the desire for both comes from. There is a desire for freedom and dignity in individuals. It is an evolutionary and developmental outcome. Both are essential to our survival, and have enabled us to survive and prosper in almost any environment on earth.  It is essential to what it means to be human. We see ourselves as free agents with choices. Those choices also include the choice of voluntary cooperation.  Although animals also cooperate (lions hunting or elephants trekking together, or ants building their complex mounds), as a species we are unique in the degree and complexity of our cooperation. Cooperation is what we regard as a hallmark of what we have in mind with the notion of “civilisation”.

The urge for both freedom and dignity literally form part of our human DNA. It has survival value. It is a very powerful force, and it is almost impossible to destroy.

That of course is not evidence of their moral superiority, but indeed of their value to human beings.

But that does not make it irrelevant to locating the source of the rights. My view is that the source of the rights of freedom and dignity is their universal recognition by all people, precisely because they are valued so highly.

Here is a way to assess that.

We can test the universal acceptability of asserting and adhering to these rights as universal human rights, as opposed to any other position that denies them, with a thought experiment: We place ourselves in the notional position where we are a newcomer to life, and don’t know who we are. We don’t know if we are rich or poor, clever or not, in which country we were born and what our ethnic, religious or other heritage is. That being the case, would we rather have the benefits of universal rights of freedom or dignity, or not?

There is no question – we would want both. Moreover, that logically implies we would want both in the form set out above, namely as universal, non-arbitrary rights owned by all individuals. Given a choice, and entering the game of life by lottery as to our identity and circumstances, would we rather, together with other individuals, have the freedom and be accorded the dignity to determine our own destiny? Can there even be a debate about this?

The right to life is in a way a corollary of both freedom and dignity. In a way the denial of life (killing) is the ultimate form of denial of freedom. Integrity of the body is., most people would agree, integral to human dignity. The most fundamental invasion of that integrity is death.

An intermediate position is to intervene in someone’s freedom and dignity by restraining his movement. Anyone will agree that in principle the right to movement is sacrosanct. An important manifestation of that right is the right freely to associate with whomever one pleases.

The freedom to think and formulate those thoughts in discussion, is a further extension of the freedom that humans desire and value very highly.

In other words, people cherish the ability to use their minds and bodies as they see fit. The universal character of any notional right that makes this possible, self-evidently means that the exercise of any right is dependent on the beneficiary not invading the rights of others to do the same.

An important part of the right freely to use the body and the mind, is the choice to work or not to work, and how to do so, and with whomever one chooses, on such terms as both parties agree.

From there it is a logical step to say that anyone is entitled to keep that which he or she has made or acquired through his or her own labour, service, ingenuity or agreements with others. That includes land.

All these rights can be tested by means of a similar thought experiment, and in each case the outcome is incontestable. The fundamental right is universally acceptable.

People only start denying these rights to other people when they see an opportunity to advance their own interests at the expense of others. This applies to politicians and their supporters, who often use government power to infringe these rights.

So let us consider the state as an agent in all this. In a democracy the state or the government (used interchangeably here) is an agency appointed by people to organise themselves more efficiently – just like people create commercial partnerships, companies, committees, neighbourhood watches and clubs to organise certain aspects to promote their well-being.

It is difficult, if not impossible, in a large organisation or political unit always to take decisions by consensus. Requiring that may lead to paralysis, and the larger the unit, the more difficult it is. That has resulted in the notion of agency by majority vote. That creates problems in that the minority’s wishes are not necessarily served, and in that the wishes of many in the majority, by reason of the diversity of interests and issues at stake, are often not considered either. Add to this the problem of incumbency, namely that representatives are in positions of power for a full term, which gives them power to entrench their positions.

Because of the practical dictates of modern governance, politicians exercise huge power, which is fundamentally power over taxpayers’ money. In addition they often exercise power over how individuals have to behave – in particular how they behave in the commercial arena.

That power is jealously guarded. Long before democracy, kings demanded taxes from citizens, which demand they enforced with the might of their armies. Governments in the democratic era built on this idea by claiming that they would use taxes to benefit the populace, but we must not be quick to assume that their aims are more public-spirited than the kings of old.

Not all tax is used as efficiently as it can be. We have on the whole no choice about:

  • Whether we must pay taxes;
  • If we do, what they would be used for.

The traditional theory is of course that there is a social contract between individuals and the state, in terms of which we “agree” with the state to take our money in exchange for services it performs for our benefit. The fact is we don’t and it doesn’t. Any individual of voting age who is unwilling to grant the power to the state to confiscate or spend his income, is powerless to do anything about it. The same applies to his ability to conclude voluntary exchanges with others. From a moral point of view it is surely no answer to say that this is just how things have developed, and it has worked reasonably well until now.

Viewed like that, government power, in particular taxes and related commercial power, are serious breaches of the rights to freedom, dignity and property.

How is all this affected by the call for redress?

It is true that in past years many individuals’ freedom and dignity were infringed, for example in South Africa, where there can be no doubt that apartheid was a major infraction of both. That gives rise to the argument that the rights to dignity and freedom of disadvantaged groups can morally speaking be served only by redress in the form of differential rights accorded to groups – that is, you will appreciate, by the state using force to expropriate property or income from members of the advantaged sector.

The reasoning is that the individual members of groups are victims in the sense that their very membership of groups against whose members discrimination was practised in the past, causes them to suffer now. Similarly, although not all members of privileged groups have perpetrated discrimination, they indirectly benefit from it. And the only moral way to address that (so the argument goes), is through redress against members of groups whose members perpetrated, or benefitted from, such discrimination.

What is more, the agency who should perform this redress, is the state, by using its power. Infringement of the rights to freedom and dignity, as well as property, of members of the privileged groups is thus claimed to be justified.

Again we must remind ourselves that the question here is not whether the infringement will be more or less effective in bringing about the redress than the alternative, which is simply to accord to all the same rights. The question is whether in principle it is justified to use the power of the state in this way.

Again, we must return to the premise that the state is an agency that invades our rights to freedom, dignity and property. For better or for worse, to some extent it denies us as human beings the freedom and dignity of self-determination. To make matters worse, the state becomes the arbiter of how much infringement of our freedom, dignity and property is justified.

Bear in mind this is not a case where an independent court adjudicates disputes between individuals, namely to place the previously disadvantaged in the position that they would have been but for discrimination of the past.

Membership of a group cannot be used to determine guilt on the part of individuals in the group regarded as privileged. It is impossible to assess the guilt of each affected individual in such a large group. Guilt by association is universally regarded as morally reprehensible. Needless to say, it is a gross violation of the injunction against arbitrary treatment. Guilt can therefore not be the justification for redress.

Proponents of a group-based redress scheme are thus driven to rely on the principle of unjustified enrichment. But whilst the principle is well-known in our law, it works only between identifiable individuals, in respect of identifiable wealth, goods or other material benefits gained, whereby the estate of one individual has been enriched, without justification, at the expense of another identifiable individual. Laws that use group identity as a proxy for respective enrichment or impoverishment, offend against the moral imperative of non-arbitrary treatment embodied in the moral principle of the rule of law.

There is no symmetry between the treatment of individuals of either group. For example: Many whites today are members of groups that historically enjoyed the doubtful benefits of apartheid. I say these benefits are doubtful, because both the perpetrator and the victim suffer due to economic discrimination. In SA, for example, in the absence of discrimination, the trained workforce, and the affluent purchasers’ market, would have been five times bigger, as blacks became part of both.  That would have benefitted both groups. Whites would have been even wealthier in such a market.

In such a group-based scheme no affected individual necessarily benefitted or suffered in proportion to the redress effected. Many blacks benefited in other ways, or suffered in ways unrelated to past discrimination. Many whites did not benefit from the offending discrimination (immigrants or children of poor parents, for example). Many whites benefit from their fortuitous descent from immigrants from Europe who, when they arrived here, were already privileged due to the historical happenstance of the development of agriculture and subsequent technological advances thereafter.

Ethiopia and Liberia are two countries in Africa that were never colonised. These two countries are very poor, more so than many countries that fell prey to colonialism. The whites of Switzerland, Sweden, and Luxembourg, countries that never colonised anyone, are ages further advanced in educational, technological and economic terms than citizens of Liberia and Ethiopia, and for that matter, many whites of colonial powers. In many ways this disparity is the result of no more than dumb luck. People in both groups of countries are simply better off or worse off as the result of a series of mostly coincidental factors. The same applies to many individuals in South Africa, whether black or white.

The result is that it is simply impossible to quantify the required extent of redress.

The difficulty of quantifying the redress needed is no small matter.  Redress, being group-based and arbitrary (having regard to the vast number of imponderable variables distinguishing individuals) will always leave room for complaint, namely that some previously disadvantaged individuals benefit more and others less than they should be.

An even bigger problem is that as a matter of sheer logic we do not know at what point redress will be complete. How do we ever know that we have reached the ideal outcome where that mythical state is achieved where both parties will be in the position that they would have been but for the offensive discrimination? We will never, ever know, which must mean that there is no logical or evident point at which the process will stop. Any attempt at stopping it will, by reason of its arbitrary origins, be just as arbitrary in turn, and lead to the predictable claim that the redress is not complete. The result is that the entire system will be arbitrary.

But perhaps that does not matter. The authorities would get it more or less right, not so?

That is by no means clear. Without having to defend the utilitarian benefits or disadvantages of either system, what we can say is: Just as we do not know when redress will be complete, there is no earthly way to know that race-based redress would be more effective than the alternative. Then a moral principle akin to the medico-ethical injunction should apply: First do no harm.

That means that the best we can do, is to say that all participants should play under the same set of rules.

In such a world everyone would enjoy the same rights of freedom, dignity and protection of property.

Let’s then test how such a system would operate, while all the time resisting the temptation of empirical or utilitarian argument.

Fundamental to the free market is a system of voluntary exchange – freedom of contract. In principle at least no one is compelled to enter into a contract. The interventionist’s retort to this is of course to say that previously disadvantaged people do not have a free choice, because their bargaining power is so weak that it amounts in effect to no power at all. At the very least, they will say, they can be exploited.

This issue is best understood in the labour context. What does it mean to say a worker can be exploited? Conceptually it is impossible to get our minds around this. Conceptually, exploitation means that employees are paid too little. Too little compared to what? There is no objective standard by which we can measure whether a worker is paid “too little”. The worker’s needs do not determine that, not least as not all workers have jobs. That means they get no wage at all, and we cannot force employers to employ all workers. Unemployed workers have the greatest need of all, yet they get no wage. Moreover, not all workers have the same needs, and assessing those objectively is impossible.

The purpose of the worker’s service is to create value. That is what he is paid for. No more and no less. The relevant criterion for the wage is therefore the assessment made by the employer of that value, and the employee’s assessment of the value of the wage. The easy way to test this, is to ask: What if the employer does not want to employ the worker? Then we know that he does not offer sufficient value. The wage offered for the unemployed worker (nil) reflects the commercial value he represents to the employer.  If that is so for the unemployed worker, why would it change for the employed worker? The relevant criterion remains the value he adds.

Weak bargaining power is a reflection of low demand for services. It means that the worker’s productivity is low, causing his labour to be priced very low by employers. One way or the other the value for money that he or she offers is low, which in a free market gives the employer a choice between employing the worker at the market wage, or not at all. There is no other reason for any low wage offer.

Having said that, neither of the two would enter into the deal unless they both believed that in the net result they would be better off after the exchange than before.

Let’s for the moment leave aside whether in the real world they are correct in this assumption. Leaving that decision to the parties is morally justified. It accords with the value of dignity and freedom outlined here. We cannot prescribe to grown people what is good for them. That would be to treat them like children.  That is not dignified. Adult people should – from a moral point of view – have the freedom to choose what to do with their lives, and how to improve it and those of others. As we have seen, both parties believe they are better off pursuant to a market transaction, than without it.

The need for redress does not affect the outcome of this exercise. The employer will still have to decide whether employing the worker will be worth the expense.

At least in a free market the parties have more choices than where they are constrained by state prescriptions, and the parties apply their minds to improving their own position to best effect. That they may sometimes be wrong, doesn’t matter. A free market creates more opportunities than any alternative, for participants to improve the collective welfare of participants.

Since value for money is the relevant criterion for the employer’s decision whether to conclude a particular employment contract, it is only natural to expect that group-based redress in the form of black empowerment (BEE) legislation, employment equity (EE) rules and labour laws in the form of trade union protection, minimum wages and anti-dismissal laws, will benefit the stronger set among the previously disadvantaged. The market will always give preference to the best-qualified and the highest-skilled in such a group, as they will invariably offer better value for money. The employer will tend to choose to employ more powerful workers. As the latter would then get their benefits at the expense of the weaker set, that is fundamentally unfair.

We do not need empirical evidence to make this point. It is axiomatic that investors’ working capital is a scarce resource. That being so, any employer will always reach a point where no single further worker can be appointed. Where the law increases the cost of that appointment, whether by way of BEE, EE or labour regulation, that point will come sooner, excluding more workers.

The law denies freedom of contract to the parties in this way. This denial disproportionately affects the weakest set of the workforce, the very ones the law is meant to benefit and uplift. That is unfair.

I started out by making the point that freedom as a fundamental right cannot be granted to some, and not to others. The law in effect permits the better-endowed portion of the previously disadvantaged – those who are better qualified through study, training and experience – to get jobs in BEE, EE and labour-law protected jobs. The weaker workers who lack these attributes can compensate for their disadvantage in productivity only by discounting their wages. But if the law makes their labour too expensive, they are not free to contract on the terms that they and the employer are prepared to agree in the absence of the law.

Arbitrarily benefiting the strong at the expense of the weak is always immoral.

Perhaps because the government is alive to the unfair treatment of the weakest set, the answer in a country like South Africa is then to use taxpayers’ money to provide welfare grants to the unemployed. Assuming for the moment that it is possible to pay all of them grants, and ignoring the question of the utilitarian value of this, is that morally fair?

Again, insofar as this forms part of the process of redress to the previously disadvantaged, it suffers from some of the same moral deficiencies as BEE/employment equity and labour law. To the extent that it aims to restore the weak and the powerless victims of past discrimination to the position they would have been in but for such discrimination, it is impossible to know when the redress will be enough. It will never stop.

Here we should pause and remind ourselves that the infringement of freedom, dignity and property of the privileged does not occur with their express permission. It conceivably occurs with what can best be called quasi-permission. In other words, even though the privileged have at no stage given permission to the state through its power to limit their freedom of contract, take their property in the form of taxes and otherwise, they nevertheless tacitly permit these infringements by complying with commercial rules, paying their taxes and otherwise complying with the law. They do so in part because not doing so is likely eventually to earn them imprisonment or other punishment.

But that is not all. The other reason they comply with the law is because it enjoys some kind of legitimacy, partly because the privileged appreciate the point of redress, both from a loose moral perspective and from a pragmatic perspective. It is also, when weighing the costs and benefits, worth the sacrifice in order to carry on with life, in particular commercial life.

Meanwhile the state is on the horns of a dilemma. The more it seeks redress from the privileged, in particular where its completion is not defined and therefore indefinite, the more the legitimacy of the redress in the minds of the privileged is eroded. It is fair and reasonable for the privileged at some stage to ask: But when will this end? How will we know that we have paid our debt?

A crucial part of the definition of tyranny is the feature of arbitrariness of action. Tyrants are irrational and unpredictable. They will in the scenario sketched, either not tell the privileged victims of infringement when the redress will be complete, or if they do, it will not be a reliable assurance. The reason is that the redress will never actually reach a point it will be to the legitimate satisfaction of all.  It is no small matter that in the absence of a measure of when redress is complete, there is literally no accountability. One of the basic tenets of the rule of law is that a subject should be told what to do to comply with the law.

We must remember too, that beneficiaries receive grants in exchange for no productive work in return. That does not restore them to the position they would have been in but for discrimination. But for discrimination they may well have had jobs and businesses. Certainly no proponent of redress would want it otherwise. They would have made a dignified contribution, by free choice, to the collective production of the economy. As recipients of free handouts they are a net drain on that same economy, at the expense of their dignity of person and freedom of action. They become subjects enslaved by the state and bereft of meaning to their lives.

There is a not-so-subtle insult inherent in a handout. It implies that the recipient is incapable of making his or her way in the world on merit. We would never have treated these beneficiaries like this in a fair dispensation from the start. Why now?

Even if we could determine when the redress through handouts is complete, the recipients will by then be incapable of starting with jobs. They will have been hooked into perpetual addiction, incapacitated by kindness. That alone destroys the moral justification of such a system.

Returning to the privileged set: It is inevitable that conflict will escalate between the state and the privileged, as the latter increasingly evade and avoid their legal obligations due to the progressive erosion of the legitimacy of the process, and as the state feels compelled to take more draconian steps to increase the scope and the impact of the redress. For example, if labour laws do not work, it introduces employment equity. If that does not work, it introduces BEE. If that does not work, it introduces social grants paid to the growing unemployed proletariat. And if that does not work, it introduces the seizure of property without compensation. And so on.

Avoidance and evasion by the privileged may take many forms. Black markets, emigration, tax evasion and avoidance and the increasing use of illegal immigrants as labour, are conceivable examples. The point is that freedom cannot increasingly be infringed without a loss of trust. The amount of trust a government enjoys is a loosely calibrated measure of its legitimate power. Legitimate power to intervene in citizens’ rights of freedom, dignity and property, depends on trust. The social democracies of Scandinavia, for example, are repositories of that kind of trust in a homogeneous society, despite huge intervention in the freedom and property rights of their citizens. It is no coincidence that these societies have very few divisions demanding redress of previous disadvantage.

Where trust is gradually eroded, the state needs to rely on brute force more and more to enforce its scheme of redress. Somewhere along the line the thin veneer of the “social contract” that covers the relationship is stripped away, and it is exposed as a power struggle.

Logic dictates that  perpetual infringement of freedom, dignity and property of subjects is likely ultimately to lead to extreme force to impose infringement, namely imprisonment and death. Long before that point is reached, all moral force on the state’s part will have been lost.

Even if we assume that there is no evidence suggesting the utilitarian superiority of one system over the other, redress by the force of the state is morally wrong. The only moral alternative is a free society, including a free market.



The Democratic Alliance at its recent congress raised and debated the policy proposal that child grants paid to poor parents should be increased in value and in due course doubled. The justification is a laudable one. The DA is concerned about high rates of malnourishment that is prevalent among poor children, and that manifests as stunted growth. That in turn has a number of deleterious consequences, including diseases and educational disadvantages suffered by young people.

It is important that we remind ourselves at the outset what it is that we want to achieve: We want to avoid the poverty trap that is making this endemic developing-world state of affairs possible.

Being a poverty trap, it is only fair that we should point out the obvious: If we can turn poverty around, we can deal with this problem. The first point to note therefore, is the simple one that the higher the per capita GDP of a country, the lower the malnourishment. Here is a list of African countries, selected at random save for the deliberate inclusion of SA and our neighbour Namibia, showing their GDP per capita and their rate of malnourishment according to the statistics of the World Bank:

Country Per capita GDP Malnourishment 2015
Mauritius 9822 5.2
Gabon 9569 7
South Africa 7488 4.6
Botswana 7483 26
Namibia 6045 28.8
Ave 1st quartile 8081 14.32
Angola 3582 14
Congo 2798 28.2
Nigeria 2455 8
Ghana 1707 7.6
Cameroon 1495 7.9
Ave 1st quartile 2407 12.14
Kenya 1143 19.1
Zimbabwe 917 44.7
Tanzania 867 32.3
Rwanda 738 41.1
Burkina Faso 663 20.2
Ave 1st quartile 865 31.48
Uganda 662 39
Mozambique 515 26.6
Ethiopia 511 28.8
Malawi 481 25.9
Liberia 352 42.8
Ave 1st quartile 504 32.62


It is fairly clear that in Africa at least, it is the relatively wealthy countries that have best dealt with the problem of malnourishment. That problem will best be tackled then, by growing our economy.

The second point is that even in poor countries, per capita growth improves countries’ response to malnourishment:

Country PC GDP % Δ Mal % Δ
Ethiopia 160 +44
Mozambique 101 +34
Nigeria 90 +11
Ghana 76 +52
Mauritius 76 +27
Ave 1st quartile 33.6
Tanzania 74 +14
Angola 70 +72
Namibia 61 -9
Uganda 60 -28
Burkina Faso 52 +20
Ave 2nd quartile 13.8
Botswana 51 +36
Kenya 37 +68
Rwanda 31 +34
Cameroon 28 +74
South Africa 28 +2
Ave 3d quartile 42.8
Malawi 23 +4
Congo 18 +13
Gabon -5.6 +25
Liberia -10 -10
Zimbabwe -27 -3
Ave 4th quartile 5.8


The next question is whether social spending (welfare payments) improves malnourishment. Here is a table setting out social spending of the same list of countries, together with their levels of malnourishment:

Country Social spend ($) Malnourishment 2015
Mauritius 626 5.2
South Africa 408 4.6
Namibia 334 28.8
Botswana 232 26
Angola 117 14
Burkina Faso 31 20.2
Gabon 31 7
Ghana 26 7.6
Rwanda 25 41.1
Liberia 23 42.8
Ethiopia 16 28.8
Malawi 16 25.9
Mozambique 15 26.6
Uganda 14 39
Nigeria 13 8
Kenya 11 19.1
Tanzania 11 32.3
Zimbabwe 8 44.7
Congo 2 28.2
Cameroon 1 7.9


At first blush it seems as if the countries in the first quartile have low malnourishment because they have high social spending, which seemingly vindicates the proponents of the doubling-down hypothesis. But under scrutiny this hypothesis fails:

  • The countries in the first quartile are all wealthy countries, that have low malnourishment. This accords with the correlation between per capita wealth and low malnourishment that we see in the first table. It may well be the relative wealth of their citizens that improves malnourishment;
  • That this is so, is demonstrated by Ghana, Gabon, Congo and Nigeria, that disprove the idea that it is grants that achieve the beneficial results. These countries are all relatively wealthy countries (in the African context at least) and they have low malnourishment figures. Most importantly they have very low social spending. That supports the idea that what matters is wealth created by people themselves, not social grants.
  • The 2nd, 3rd and 4th quartiles do not continue with the trend of high levels of social spending correlating with low malnourishment. If there was anything to the theory, we would have expected lower social spending progressively to deliver more malnourishment. There is no such correlation. The bottom quartile is as successful as the second in fighting malnourishment.
  • Unfortunately we do not have figures to compare the change in social spending in the different countries. But what we do know, is that in South Africa social spending increased exponentially. Here is how a 2014 report of Statistics SA titled ‘Poverty trends in South Africa : An examination of absolute poverty between 2006 and 2011’, describes the growth of welfare in South Africa:

“South Africa’s social assistance system has expanded tremendously since 2000, growing from around 3 million grants to 15 million by 2011. Growth in grants has been primarily driven by the expansion of child support grants which increased from roughly 150 000 recipients in 2000 to over 10 million in 2011. The coverage of this grant has successively been extended to children in older years, reaching those between the ages of 15 and 16 in 2010 and thus increasing its ability and reach to improve the lives of those living below the poverty line. Between the IES [Income and Expenditure Survey] 2005/06 and IES 2010/11, the number of grant holders increased by over 46%, growing from 10.2 million in 2006 to 14.9 million in 2011”.[i]

Against the background of such growth, if these grants were necessary and effective in dealing with the problem of malnourishment, one would have expected that malnourishment would have been much worse in 2000, and would have been drastically reduced since then. Instead, as we see in the above figures, SA already had relatively low malnourishment by African standards, and it was not reduced by any significant degree between 2000 and 2015.

The authors Deveraux and Waider show[1] that while there has been some reduction in the prevalence of out-and-out hunger, the rate of stunting due to malnutrition was almost constant over the period 1993 to 2008, with a very modest decline in 2012.

The point is if grants were such a powerful instrument to fight malnutrition, should we not by now have seen a far more dramatic improvement?

We must remember that over the same period (2000-2015) unemployment in SA (on the narrow definition) increased from about 4 million to 5.5 million. That means that while it is true that many people were lifted out of absolute poverty by means of social grants, these grants went to an increasing crowd of jobless workers. (Theoretically of course they went in aid of children, but remember it is the parents who spend the money, so all the unemployed adults in an extended family are likely to benefit too). The result is not only that an increasingly unproductive process is taking place (as fewer people work for the food so distributed), but the number of mouths to feed (other than targeted children) is increasing all the time. This creates a classicwelfare trap. While fewer produce, more become dependent on consuming.

What is more, given the need to spread the meagre produce purchased with a grant in this way, is hardly likely to achieve the aim of good, balanced nutrition for children.

So inevitably the proposal is now to double the benefit. That must mean that there will be an increasing burden on the fiscus. According to the South African national budget for 2017/18, out of total income of R1 414.1 billion, R180 billion already goes to welfare[ii].

That amounts to about 11.5 per cent of the budget.[iii] It is not clear where the saving should come from to fund the doubling og the grant.

In this context it is worth revisiting evidence that amongst South Africa’s peers, countries with high state consumption spending invariably have higher unemployment:

In other words, the more the state spends (as is likely to happen if the suggestion of the DA comes to fruition), the more the takers are likely to be. The economic principle is known as “the tragedy of the commons”: As soon as a resource is free and available to the public, it tends to be exhausted as more and more people make use of it. There is no check on the consumption. Long before any economic benefits of improved child nutrition will be felt, those benefits will be swamped by the growing idleness that feeds on it.

What is more, there is a strong case to be made that welfare grants contribute to our reprehensibly low start-up rate of small businesses.

Here are the percentages of the population intending to start a business in South Africa compared to the other African countries cited in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2016/17 Global Report (GEM Report):


Country Entrepreneurial intentions (%)
Burkina Faso 63.7
Cameroon 34.4
Egypt 63.8
Morocco 36.2
South Africa 10.1
Average, excluding South Africa 49.5

Source: Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2016/17 Global Report[iv]


It is clear that the vast majority of our unemployed do not even consider starting a business.

The same story is told by the figures showing ownership of new businesses:


Country New business ownership rate (%)
Burkina Faso 13.5
Cameroon 10.9
Egypt 6.6
Morocco 4.3
South Africa 3.3
Average, excluding South Africa 8.8

Source: Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2016/17 Global Report


Someone sitting at home (possibly in a free government house) who receives a grant providing enough to buy food for the family, may well have felt compelled to start a small business in the absence of that grant. It is clear that there is a perception that the government will provide. There is no urgency to start new businesses.

Is South Africa exceptional in this regard? Here is a list of various African countries (selected on the basis of availability of data) and the percentage of GDP paid towards social welfare by each:


Country Total public social expenditure as % of GDP Total public social expenditure per capita (US$)
Burkina Faso 1.200 20.35
Central African Republic 2.800 17.32
Djibouti 0.100 3.49
Ethiopia 1.100 17.91
Ghana 0.500 21.05
Kenya 2.500 77.22
Morocco 0.900 70.57
Namibia 3.400 353.97
Nigeria 0.300 18.01
Senegal 1.000 24.10
South Africa 3.000 396.27
Sudan 0.600 26.32
Tunisia 0.500 58.09
Uganda 0.600 11.10
Zimbabwe 0.400 7.15
Average, excluding South Africa 1.057 51.90

Source: World Bank[v]


Save for Namibia, South Africa is by far the highest spender of state funds on welfare in terms of percentage of GDP. South Africa spends three times as much on welfare expressed as a percentage of GDP, but more than six times as much in absolute dollar terms per capita, than its African counterparts.

Looked at another way: as there are about 17 million welfare recipients in South Africa (about 30 per cent of the population), we are talking of a massive injection of cash for no productive work in return. That $396.27 per capita per year translates to about R1 350 per beneficiary per month on average. In comparison to South Africa’s $396.27, of the entrepreneurial countries identified earlier, Burkina Faso spends $20.35 per person per year. Uganda, recently named the most entrepreneurial country in the world,[vi] spends a puny $11.10. These countries have such low welfare payments that clearly there is strong motivation to work or start a business.

No country can hope to supply jobs to all of its citizens who want to work, without a growing business sector. Every single private-sector employer once was a business start-up.

There is no way in the world that we will reverse the growing tide of unemployment by means of welfare grants targeted at children, while those are gradually and voraciously eaten up by the unemployed.


In its May 2016 report ‘South Africa: A new growth strategy’, the SAIRR highlighted the following change in the relationship between the number of people in employment and the number of people receiving social grants:


“… the number of people on social grants now exceeds the number of people in employment. In 2001, before the major roll out of child support grants occurred, there were 312 employed people for every 100 on social grants. Now there are only 86 people with jobs for every 100 people on social grants”.[vii]


Welfare grants are displacing employment. The only sources for state expenditure are taxpayers’ money, state borrowing or printing cash. All of these undermine the collective purse of the country, taking up money that could have been used by the private sector to create real jobs and wealth.


Africa Check recently reported:


“There is concern over whether South Africa’s spending on social welfare is sustainable in the long term. According to research that has compared the government’s expenditure on social grants and civil service remuneration since 2008 with government revenue over the same period, these will absorb all government income by 2026 if current growth trends are not adjusted” [my emphasis].[viii]


That may well not happen. But how are we to turn the growing trend of unemployment around if we were to double child care grants? There is not a socialist policy that fails (and believe me, this one is failing) that does not sooner or later elicit the retort from its proponents: What we need to do, is just to spend more money on it.

No we do not. What we need to do is to create more jobs. Millions more. Towards which which the Job Seekers Exemption Certificate, also proposed by the DA, is an excellent start.


[i] Statistics South Africa, ‘Poverty trends in South Africa: An examination of absolute poverty between 2006 and 2011’, 2014, available at (last accessed 22 March 2017).

[ii] Budget 2017: Budget Review, National Treasury of the Republic of South Africa, 22 February 2017.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2016/17 Global Report (Global Entrepreneurship Research Association, 2017), available for download at (last accessed 20 March 2017).

[v] World Bank, Social Security Protection Indicators, available at (last accessed 22 April 2017).

[vi] Megan Kurose, ‘The most entrepreneurial country in the world (hint: it’s not the U.S.)’, StartupRounds, 19 January 2017, available at (last accessed 26 April 2017).

[vii] SAIRR, ‘South Africa: A new national growth strategy’, May 2016, available at (last accessed 20 March 2017).

[viii] Louise Ferreira, ‘Factsheet: Social grants in South Africa – separating myth from reality’, Africa Check, available at (last accessed 12 March 2017).



I have always puzzled as to why some formerly communist countries came out of the bloc so much more quickly (pun intended) and effectively than others.

Estonia –the flavour of the month amongst commentators – is a wonderful prototype of successful reform. No one knows exactly how much the per capita income of Estonia was before the introduction of market-based reforms in the early nineties. But anecdotal accounts suggest that it, and life quality in general, was poor. But we do have decent statistics from 1995 onwards.

What we also know, is that the country’s economic system changed from a communist/socialist one in the years up to 1989, to a free-market system. Today its economy is the tenth freest in the world.

Here is a table setting out the change of Estonia to a free-market system, according to the Freedom of the World Index, together with its per capita GDP over the period (The freedom rating components of 1990 are sparse, and the average does not contain all the elements available):

1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014 2015 2016
Economic freedom 4.49 7.60 7.96 7.82 7.80 7.95
GDP per capita (Constant 2010 $) 7313 10108 14681 14282 17453 17733 18094
Unemployment 1.5 10 15 9 16 9 7 5


What we note is that:

  • Economic freedom gradually increased;
  • The country’s real per capita GDP grew by 150% between1995 and 2016;
  • After volatility in the years of the transition and the financial crisis, unemployment has declined steadily.

A point that should not be left unmade, is about basic education.  In 2015, Estonia was ranked in the top ten nations in both math and reading in the PISA international educational rankings, and in science it was ranked third in the world behind Singapore and Japan.

Estonia has one of the most decentralised education systems in the world. This extends not only to school management, but also to teachers. Promotion and appointment of teachers, curriculum, time allocation and testing procedures are mostly decied at school level.

Moreover, Estonia has school choice. In addition to a guaranteed place in a local public school, a learner may also apply to any private or selective school, each of which receives a state subsidy, but may charge extra. That has the benefit of introducing competition into the education arena, resulting in incentives for both private and public schools to improve.

The combination of a free market and good education has predictably unleashed the growth potential of the Estonian economy.

A comparison of Estonia with its peers – ie former Soviet satelite states that emerged from the former East Bloc – shows how important a free market is. The graph below compares average annual real per capita GDP in dollar terms. That way of measurement is more useful than percentage growth, because to a large degree it eliminates the phenomenon of convergence – namely that poorer countries, all things being equal, grow percentage-wise faster that wealthy ones.

Country Average economic freedom rank (90-15) (EFW) $ per capita GDP growth 1995-2016
Estonia 13.8 1207
Georgia 18.75 591
Lithuania 29.2 1503
Ave 1st quartile 20.58 1100
Latvia 30.4 1306
Slovak Rep 40.8 1116
Romania 51.5 502
Ave 2nd quartile 40.9 974
Czech Rep 51.6 652
Hungary 54.33 481
Poland 67 934
Ave 3rd quartile 57.64 689
Bulgaria 68.33 419
Slovenia 73.22 726
Croatia 79.4 484
Ave 4th quartile 73.65 543


There is no question: Those countries that maintained a high level of economic freedom in the post-communist era, and did so over a number of years consistently, on the whole reaped the benefits.

Having said that, Georgia is an outlier. Despite its considerable economic freedom, its performance (as measured here) was average at best. That is largely the result of the fact that it started off a lower base than any of the other countries. If measured in percentage terms, its per capita GDP grew at a phenomenal 12 percent per annum, higher than any country on the list. That is despite the fact that it has relatively poor education, as the next graph shows (It is ranked 105 out of 139 in the Global Competitiveness report). By contrast, Poland (with 4th best education among the countries shown) does quite well despite a lack of economic freedom:

Country Education rank $ growth
Estonia 5 1207
Slovenia 52 726
Czech Rep 59 652
Poland 72 934
Lithuania 73 1503
Bulgaria 87 419
Latvia 88 1306
Georgia 105 591
Hungary 111 481
Croatia 112 484
Romania 115 502
Slovak Rep 118 1116


None of this should come as a surprise. In South Africa we also, like these former East Bloc countries, emerge from an era of economic mismanagement. We too need to reform our economy in order to create jobs for all. As the above evidence shows, that will only produce optimal dividends if we – besides drastically improving education – reform all aspects of the economy, including taxes and high state spending, inflation (especially of asset prices), international trade and business regulation including labour, and the rule of law – an essential part of market freedom. Needless to say, the right to protection of private property is a cornerstone of the rule of law, and its threatened abolishment will destroy any ambitions of productive reform.

By way of comparison, this is where South Africa stands:

Average free-market rank 1990-2015: 75.33

Education rank: 114

Average annual per capita growth in dollars 1995-2016: $98.

In other words: Our average free-market rank would place us second last on the list, if we were to be compared to the former communist countries.

Our education ranking is just about doubly as bad as any on the list.

And our annual per capita growth in dollars is less than 10% of the freest countries, and less than 20% of the least free group. Even percentage-wise, our per capita GDP is worse than any country on the list.

Click on this link for a graph showing just how badly we compare:

It is fair to say our reform project is in trouble, and a drastic U-turn is called for.



I am still writing and publishing a critique of Ha-Joon Chang’s book with the above title. In the introduction he stakes his claim:

What the free-marketers have promised is at best half true.

Free markets make economies worse off than the correct alternative policies.

Capitalism remains the answer, but government intervention is necessary to make it work.

The book is based on the formula that free-marketers are guilty of peddling myths, and the author’s business is to debunk those myths (“things” the reader presumably does not know) – one per chapter. For that reason it is convenient to follow the same formula to criticise the points the author makes.

Thing 3: Most people in rich countries are paid more than they should be.

In this chapter the author makes the point that in rich countries people are paid dramatically better for doing the same job, only because the system of the economy in rich countries is more “advanced”, and because their governments exercise protectionism in the form of immigration control. The fallacy that the free marketers commit is that they wrongly claim that people are paid better for their relatively higher productivity, which is not the case.

The implication is that government practices intervention in the form of restricting labour mobility into the country, which is a necessary thing, and that discredits the idea of a free market. In other words, if the market had been truly free, it would have permitted everyone who wished to enter, to do so. And then all workers entering that society would have been paid low wages as in the poor countries of their origin.

Central to the argument is the assertion that a capitalist system needs this kind of intervention in order to be optimal. The author believes that: “Too rapid an inflow of immigrants will not only lead to a sudden increase in competition for jobs but also stretch the physical and social infrastructures, such as housing and healthcare, and create tensions with the resident population.”

If I understand the argument correctly, then it is that this is a good thing, because the sudden influx of low-wage competition would be bad for social cohesion in that country. It would make workers in the rich country unhappy because their wages would be suppressed.

What does not seem to bother the author, is what happens to the workers of the poor country. He seems to be quite sanguine about the fact that they are paid at the relative level of their productivity, even if that brings about huge inequality of income between workers of the two countries.

Surely if he is concerned about social justice, he should rather worry about the poor country’s workers?

Let’s start with the point about competition. The puzzling aspect is that Mr Chang sees an increase in competition as a problem. Why would that be, especially as he says the workers in the rich country are paid more than they are worth?

Competition is beneficial, because it improves the cost-efficiency of labour, and lowers consumer prices in the economy. It has been shown repeatedly that immigrants are a boon to any economy[1]. It is not clear then why Mr Chang wants to keep the wages high by way of government intervention. It is almost as if he sees the country as a kind of trade union that operates to benefit its members at the exclusion of non-members.

But let’s examine whether free immigration would cause the disaster the author fears: does it mean we are likely to see a race to the bottom as immigrants drive down wages?

That is very unlikely.

First of all we must remember that all workers in a rich society like Sweden get paid higher wages than workers in, say, India. Everyone in Sweden is better off, because the economy is more advanced and more productive. That means that employers have to offer higher wages than they would in India, because otherwise the wages offered would not be competitive in the Swedish economy. In Sweden no-one would sweep the streets, or drive a taxi, for the same price as in India. Because everyone gets paid more, the cost of living is higher in Sweden, as higher labour costs make things more expensive. So Swedish employers have a limited choice. They have to pay more, or forego the benefit of the service.

But having said that, workers in Sweden are not necessarily rich because of such an arrangement. If we apply the principle of purchasing power parity, then a taxi driver in Sweden cannot buy all that much more in Sweden than his counterpart in India can, when it comes to basic necessities. Yes of course the quality of goods, services and housing is better in Sweden than in India. But the worker has to pay high Swedish prices to get those things.

But is it entirely correct to say that the productivity of a taxi driver is the same in Sweden? Of course, taken literally, it is. A taxi driver in either society covers only so many miles per time unit. He cannot really achieve better output than the Indian driver can.

But surely that is not the end of the story, is it? The passenger still gets much more value for money in Sweden. And the reason for that is that he or she gets from point A to point B in Sweden, not in India. We know that the general quality of life is higher in Sweden. Being transported where you want to go (or getting any service) in Sweden is for that reason alone, more valuable in Sweden than in India. Productivity narrowly defined is not the only reason why consumers get more value for money out of a taxi ride. Which partly explains why workers get paid more in rich countries. Consumers are prepared to pay for the more expensive service, after all.

That also explains why workers want to emigrate to free, wealthy countries, rather than the other way around.

Even so, immigrants to a rich country would probably still charge less for the same job – in other words, undercut their local competition to some extent. The evidence is for example that immigrants to the USA are paid less when they start working, (even though they typically soon surpass the locals)[2].

But there are severe constraints on immigrants undercutting local workers. Immigrants still have to make a living in the new economy, which is vastly more expensive than where they come from. That being so, they will discount the price of their labour only enough to create a competitive advantage at the margin. They are hardly likely to ignite a “race to the bottom”.

In the meantime investors and consumers benefit from the cheaper services, as the former make more profit (leading to more investment) and the latter enjoy cheaper services. In a competitive market taxi rides will ultimately become cheaper.

More serious problems occur when the taxpayer has to pay for social welfare made available to immigrants. However, no free market would permit that. Creating a taxpayer-funded safety net for immigrants creates a moral hazard and an economic risk of freeloading. In a truly free market there would not be such a risk.

Will unfettered immigration lead to social unrest?  Bear in mind again that we are talking about a free market. In a truly free market there is prosperity and a high demand for workers. It is a well-known phenomenon that unskilled immigrant workers often do jobs that locals do not want to do. Locals who lose their jobs due to immigrant competition will mostly find other jobs in a free market. Truly free markets have jobs and rising incomes for everyone, including the poor.

It is further so that free markets attract by far the highest numbers of immigrants. While about 3% of the world population are migrants, close to 30% of the population of the top ten free-market countries are.  The world is replete with examples of free markets that absorb immigrants all the time, and where unemployment is still extremely low. That alone testifies to the success of a free-market economy, and shows that the supposed danger posed by incoming labour is vastly overrated.

But even so a situation can be imagined where unfettered immigration would, at least in the short term, put pressure on the social fabric of a free-market country. But the only reason why that would be so, would be because the countries from which these migrants come, are not free markets with similar levels of prosperity in the first place. Migrants only leave their home countries for free markets because they realise that the latter offer better jobs and business opportunities. As we see, to some extent that has already been happening for years. For many years free-market countries have served as the refuge of poor people: The US, the UK, New Zealand and Australia, for example, have been havens to Mexican, Polish, Irish, Indian, Chinese and Japanese immigrants.

The question is whether we can say that an economic system that does not allow all and any comers to join it, is not a free market. In our current setup what we refer to as an economic “system” is normally one that is run by a government with jurisdiction over a particular territory. Such a system is therefore assessed according to how well it provides a living to its citizens, not to all and sundry putting up their hands and saying “me too”. To expect such a system to be judged for both its economic freedom and its economic success based on the life quality it provides to millions who do not even form part of it, is grossly unfair.

Indeed, one of the driving forces behind economic reform is precisely the fact that we have jurisdictional competition. The very fact of jurisdictional competition has spurred governments of unfree countries to reform.

The fact that the free market of one country is not able to accommodate and provide a living to all manner of citizens of other countries that do not similarly have free markets, can barely be laid at the free market’s door.

On the other hand the answer to the problem is not to exclude all immigrants by force either. It may lie in helping to make the immigrant’s country of origin so attractive that he does not want to leave in the first place – in other words, to encourage that country also to have a free market.

Nothing stands in the way of a free-market country, for example, doing what free–market countries already do in respect of trade, namely to conclude agreements that eliminate protectionism – except that, instead of free trade, they permit a mutual flow of labour, on condition that any new member to the pact undertakes to reform to a free-market economy. (Or it can be done in stages: X number of immigrants for Y number of reforms, etc).

Of course in such an event there will be much less need for immigration. Then there will be so many more job opportunities in the new member countries, that workers might be happy to stay where they are. Such a pact will eliminate the income disparities between India and Sweden much more rapidly than any other solution.

It follows that if Mr Chang is interested in social justice (and it is by no means clear that he is) he should not engage in semantic games by trying to prove that markets where governments exercise sovereignty over who may cross its borders, are not free markets. Perhaps we can even concede that he is right. Maybe immigration restriction is an intervention in the market. But that would only be necessary because workers in unfree, poor countries are oppressed. That is where his attention should be focussed.

The main reason why workers in Sweden are paid more than workers in India, is because workers in India are paid much less than they would have been paid if India had been a successful free market like Sweden. We should not blame the successful system for that state of affairs. Much less can we say that that system is not free.

For the time being, we can conclude by saying that the statement that people in rich countries are paid more than they should be, holds no water. The very fact that they are paid more in a free market, is a force for the good. But for that, the poor citizens of unfree societies would have no incentive to ask for, and their governments to give them,  a better system.

[1] The effects of immigration on the United States’ economy’, Penn Wharton Budget Model, 27 June 2016, available at (last accessed 19 April 2017).

[2] Gwynn Guilford, ‘Immigrants are getting more out of America’s recovery than native-born households are’, Quartz, 20 September 2016, available at (last accessed 17 April 2017).


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