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Theft, Development and Being a Good Samaritan

In a book praised by the likes of nobelaureate Joseph Stiglitz and Noam Chomsky, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism briefly discusses the economic history of today’s great powers and charts possible ways forward for less developed countries. Ha-Joon addresses the mystery of economic development by the Asian Tigers as well as how countries such as the United States and Germany developed.

Amongst the most significant points of the book are that today’s great powers are being disingenuous when they lecture the developing world about using free trade to develop their economies. The irony being that in the past, while they were developing, the countries that are economically developed today protected particular sectors of their economy (not all sectors, which would be the anti-thesis of free-trade) until they were strong enough to compete internationally. The examples that Ha-Joon uses to justify this assertion is that of the United Kingdom, United States, South Korea, Germany, and Japan. But the author doesn’t stop with arguing that free-trade is not the way to development.

The most controversial assertion of the book however is that one of the pillars of the WTO, the international patent regime, could be an obstacle to economic development. If this were the case, why do we in the developed world encourage the developing world to adhere so closely to the intellectual rule of law? The irony is that the countries that have developed by largely ignoring patents until it suited them. The author does not argue that patents are always an obstacle or play a negative role in development, however, he does argue that the current patent regime and structure may be inefficient.

Ha-Joon closes the book by discussing the effect of culture on development. His discussion seems to be a direct response to Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order where it is argued that the lack of economic development in some countries is a consequence of culture as an immutable attribute. Not only does he argue that culture is not economic destiny, but the practice of focusing on culture is fundamentally flawed. The conclusions are post ipso facto and thus are not predictive; this also begs the question as to whether or not the question can be proven false (as any scientific hypothesis could). Ha-Joon closes with several examples, including his example from South Korea which suffered from the 2-hour delay, “Korean time,” which as an Eritrean-American, gives me hope because we certainly suffer from this frustration (3-hours in our case).

This book is a fantastic read chock full of fantastic stories, examples and statistics. This book puts numbers and reason to an idea that many of always suspected. If you really want to expand your horizons I would surely recommend this book, let me know what you think of it!

Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism

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