Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom is an engaging new guide to complex debates about the roots and reasons for prosperity, the march of opportunity versus the crushing boot of exploitation, and why the builders of societies – rather than the burglars – ultimately win out. Stellenbosch Visio is giving away two copies.
How did Einstein help create Eskom? Why can an Indonesian volcano explain the Great Trek? What do King Zwelithini and Charlemagne have in common? These are some of the questions author and economics professor Johan Fourie explores in this entertaining, accessible economic history spanning everything from the human migration out of Africa 100,000 years ago to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Win a copy
Simply click on the button below and you could win a copy of Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom. Remember to include your full names, contact details and courier address. Make sure to use LONG WALK in the subject line. Competition closes on Friday 28 May 2021 and winners will be notified via email.
WINNERS: Christine Havenga, Cobus Smit
Herewith an exclusive extract:
The world can be divided into two types of people. The first group believes the world is like a game of Monopoly: only the strongest, smartest or most fortunate survive. For this group, life is a zero-sum game; for you to win, I need to lose. If you have a world view like this, then you will inevitably also believe that wealth is acquired through the acquisition of something owed by someone else, whether it is their property (as in the game), their land or their forgone wages. The second group, by contrast, believes that the world is more like a game of Catan. They hold the belief that you can prosper while I prosper too. In fact, those in this group might even believe, as do the best Catan players, that you have to prosper for me to prosper, that our fate is irrevocably joined together.
Unfortunately, Monopoly is the board game most associated with wealth and prosperity. It is unfortunate, because the real world is nothing like a game of Monopoly. Let me give one example, very close to home. I teach at Stellenbosch University, a university town about an hour’s drive from Cape Town. The population of Stellenbosch increased by a factor of eight between 1911 and 2016 – from almost 22,000 people to more than 170,000 in little more than a century. Back in 1911, according to the census, there were only 10 people who owned cars in the entire town. Today, that number is at least 62,000 – we don’t know exactly how many cars that is, as the census only counts one car per family.
The point is that the number of car owners has gone up from 1 in 2000 inhabitants to 1 in 3. If Stellenbosch was a game of Monopoly, then only one person would have ended up with all 10 initial cars – and the game would be over. But because it is more like Catan, because our prosperity depends on those of our neighbours, there is far more wealth to go round. Instead of just one family monopolising everything, thousands of Stellenbosch families now own a car.
We find it hard to believe that the modern world is less like Monopoly and more like Catan. One reason is that we are constantly bombarded by negative economic news – of tech billionaires and their ballooning fortunes; of company closures and job losses; of debt and deceit and destitution. Our world view is also informed by our experience. Behavioural economists have identified that we have a ‘negativity bias’, that negative things have a greater impact on our psychological state than positive things, even if the two are of equal proportion. It is therefore very human to focus disproportionately on the negative and ignore the positive.
A third reason we find it hard to believe that the world is not a zerosum game is that our education curricula have shortcomings. History courses focus almost exclusively on political and social history. Economics courses focus on formal models and technical tools. Economic history courses have almost disappeared from university programmes. The shift towards postmodernism, as we will see in chapter 1, has not helped. Topics that deserve our attention, like slavery and colonialism, have been appropriated by fields of study where empirical fact has been displaced by subjectivity, relativism and a general suspicion of evidence and reason.
Power and ideology, instead, are touted as the only tools to understand the past. While there is ample reason to doubt the ‘objectivity’ of colonial sources of evidence, that is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The only way we can uncover what happened, and why, is to construct a theory, collect source material – sometimes using innovative new (statistical) methods – and test whether the hypothesis holds up against the evidence. This book is based on research that uses such an empirical approach.
Alternative approaches, I would argue, can only result in reinforcing the researcher’s own beliefs and biases. History, then, becomes the study of our own fantasies. Having self-reinforcing fantasies rather than solid evidence of how the world works has consequences. If we believe that everyone is competing in a zero-sum game, that I can only become successful if I overpower and subdue you, then that will make us dislike rich people, the implication being that they could only be where they are because they took advantage of others. But if we believe that success requires cooperation and interaction, that we can only be successful because we depend on and trust others, then we will come to appreciate that wealth creates more wealth.
You don’t have to worship at the feet of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk to appreciate their companies’ contributions to the profound improvement in our standards of living. Recognising that wealth requires a shared dependence also allows us to identify where wealth is unsustainably, unethically or illegally obtained. A government official misappropriating taxpayers’ money or a business manager cooking the company books breaks down our trust and cooperation, weakening our economic freedom; whereas an entrepreneur who builds a thriving business increases it.
Get your copy
Our Long Walk to Economic Freedom can be purchased at leading bookshops in Stellenbosch and is also available on Amazon Kindle.