Life, liberty, and the pursuit of property

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Bob Herbert describes the agony of Zimbabwe:

Life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now the lowest in the world: 37 years for men and 34 for women. A cholera epidemic is raging. People have become ill with anthrax after eating the decaying flesh of animals that had died from the disease. Power was lost to the morgue in the capital city of Harare, leaving the corpses to rot.

Most of the world is ignoring the agony of Zimbabwe, a once prosperous and medically advanced nation in southern Africa that is suffering from political and economic turmoil -- and the brutality of Mugabe's long and tyrannical reign.

The decline in health services over the past year has been staggering. An international team of doctors that conducted an "emergency assessment" of the state of medical care last month seemed stunned by the catastrophe they witnessed. The team was sponsored by Physicians for Human Rights. In their report, released this week, the doctors said:

"The collapse of Zimbabwe's health system in 2008 is unprecedented in scale and scope. Public-sector hospitals have been shuttered since November 2008. The basic infrastructure for the maintenance of public health, particularly water and sanitation services, have abruptly deteriorated in the worsening political and economic climate."

It's hard to think of a collapse this sudden and complete--perhaps Ukraine in the 1930s, or Mao's Great Leap Forward.  A few years ago, Zimbabwe was the bread basket of Africa.  Now it's literally a horror story.

The media typically blames this on Zimbabwe having a bad, unresponsive government.  But lots of places have bad, unresponsive governments; those governments are unresponsive and bad, but they still don't give rise to famine and cholera.  It takes a very special sort of bad, unresponsive government to make things this awful.

The reason Zimbabwe is horrifying, rather than merely awful and repugnant like other dictatorships, is spectacularly terrible land reform.  It turns out that land rights are the absolute linchpin of a functioning agricultural economy.

This is not, as some would have it, a brief against land reform.  There have been lots of good land reforms.  And in fact, no matter how efficient giant white-owned farms may be, they represent an ongoing legacy of colonial injustice.  But successful land reform is gradual, works hard to preserve property rights even as it passes them on to someone else (which means, among other things, compensating the former owners), and focuses on putting control of the land into the hands of those who worked it.  If you have been following the horrors in Zimbabwe at all, you know that this is the opposite of how Mugabe has handled this redistribution, using violence to kick white farmers off their farms and hand them over to his cronies who have no idea how to run a farm.  Since many of the disposessed white farmers bought their land in the post-colonial era, this has massively undercut the justice of the redistribution.  Having destroyed the principle that a clear title represents a solid claim on the future output of that land, Mugabe can hardly be surprised to find that no one wants to invest any time or capital in making the land yield.

Property rights are neither sacred nor absolute.  But they are very, very important.  And we're in an era when the temptation to arbitrarily violate them "For the Greater Good" is growing stronger.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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