The beginning of the end of history

There's a natural tendency to blame Vietnamese poverty on the legacy of communism, and of course, some of that is fair. Vietnam suffers in many ways from the legacy of state-owned enterprises; things like financial markets, and financial accounting, are still novelties that budding capitalists are struggling to get the hang of. And corruption, which is such a big problem that it is actually mentioned as something that needs fixing by government officials we interview, is undoubtedly at least partly attributable to the insanities of a non-market system.

But in fact, Vietnam is mostly just poor because it's poor, just as it's always been poor--and just as the overwhelming majority of the human race has always been poor. Driving through the agricultural areas around Hanoi this afternoon, I was put in mind of a Chinese Communist propaganda film from the early 1950's, a screening of which I stumbled into one rainy London afternoon. It was, like all such films, filled with happy workers living in the soon-to-be bright communist future . . . all of them singing merrily as they reaped the many material and spiritual rewards of living in a collectivist society where no grain of rice went to feed the evil capitalist overlord.

What was surprising was not the obvious untruth of the promises, but how meagre they were. In the bright Communist future, there will be new roads . . . constructed by thousands of men digging out the hillside by hand. When the farmworkers pole out in flat boats to collect seaweed, everyone gets a brand new net. And the collectivist farm is going to have some tractors, driven by a tractor-controlling elite that (at least to judge from the plot) never marries outside the caste.

They were painting a vision of an impossibly bright future that would hardly have done for a weekend backpacking trip on the other side of the Pacific.

Communism stalled progress, but unlike in many parts of Eastern Europe, it didn't actually reverse it. And judging by the enthusiasm for education and human capital acquisition (one entrepreneur simultaneously advocated more spending on socialized medicine . . . and raising school fees so that there would be more money in the educational system) it seems likely to be a fairly temporary delay at that.