by Murray Rothbard
(Contents by Publication Date)
The Politics of Famine
The media focuses primarily on the horrifying shots of starving children, and secondarily on the charges and counter-charges about which governments--the Western, the Ethiopian, or whatever--are responsible for relief not getting to the starving thousands on time. In the midst of the media blitz, the important and basic questions get lost in the shuffle. For example, why does Nature seem to frown only on socialist countries? If the problem is drought, why do the rains only elude countries that are socialist or heavily statist? Why does the United States never suffer from poor climates, which threaten famine?
The root of famine lies not in the gods or in the stars but in the actions of man. Climate is not the reason that Russia before Communism was a heavy exporter of grain, while now the Soviet Union is a grain importer. Nature is not responsible for the fact that, of all the countries of East Africa, the Marxist- Leninist nations of Ethiopia and Mozambique are now the major sufferers from mass famine and starvation. Given causes yield given effects, and it is an ineluctable law of nature and of man that if agriculture is systematically crippled and exploited, food production will collapse, and famine will be the result.
The root of the problem is the Third World, where (a) agriculture is overwhelmingly the most important industry, and (b) the people are not affluent enough, in any crisis, to purchase foods from abroad. Hence, to Third World people, agriculture is the most precious activity, and it becomes particularly important that it not be hobbled or discouraged in any way. Yet, wherever there is production, there are also parasitic classes living off the producers. The Third World in our century has been the favorite arena for applied Marxism, for revolutions, coups, or domination by Marxist intellectuals. Whenever such new ruling classes have taken over, and have imposed statist or full socialist rule, the class most looted, exploited, and oppressed have been the major productive class: the farmers or peasantry. Literally tens of millions of the most productive farmers were slaughtered by the Russian and Chinese Communist regimes, and the remainder were forced off their private lands and onto cooperative or state farms, where their productivity plummeted, and foods production gravely declined.
And even in those countries where land was not directly nationalized, the new burgeoning State apparatus flourished on the backs of the peasantry, by levying heavy taxes and by forcing peasants to sell grain to the State at far below market price. The artificially cheap food was then used to subsidize foods supplies for the urban population which formed the major base of support for the new bureaucratic class.
The standard paradigm in African and in Asian countries has been as follows: British, French, Portuguese, or whatever imperialism carved out artificial boundaries of what they dubbed "colonies" and established capital cities to administer and rule over the mass of peasantry. Then the new class of higher and lower bureaucrats lived off the peasants by taxing them and forcing them to sell their produce artificially cheaply to the State. When the imperial powers pulled out, they turned over these new nations to the tender mercies of Marxist intellectuals, generally trained in London, Paris, or Lisbon, who imposed socialism or far greater statism, thereby aggravating the problem enormously.
Furthermore, a vicious spiral was set up, similar to the one that brought the Roman Empire to its knees. The oppressed and exploited peasantry, tired of being looted for the sake of the urban sector, decided to leave the farm and go sign up in the welfare state provided in the capital city. This makes the farmer's lot still worse, and hence more of them leave the farm, despite brutal measures trying to prevent them from leaving. The result of this spiral is famine.
Thus, most African governments force farmers to sell all their crops to the State at only a half or even a third of market value. Ethiopia, as a Marxist-Leninist government, also forced the farmers onto highly inefficient state farms, and tried to keep them working there by brutal oppression.
The answer to famine in Ethiopia or elsewhere is not international food relief. Since relief is invariably under the control of the recipient government, the food generally gets diverted from the farms to line the pockets of government officials to subsidize the already well-fed urban population. The answer to famine is to liberate the peasantry of the Third World from the brutality and exploitation of the State ruling class. The answers to famine are private property and free markets.