Thursday, March 5, 2009

Gratitude and Inevitability

This Washington Post article about North Korea's food situation made me so grateful to be living elsewhere. An interesting part of this article is a narration of how markets have recently arisen in North Korea.
The immediate trigger for the famine was flooding in 1995. But the centrally planned economy had been in free fall since 1990-91, when the Soviet Union collapsed and cut off subsidies. Without free fuel for its aging factories and without a guaranteed market for its often shoddy goods, North Korea came unglued.

Kim Jong Il has explained some of what happened. "When the state was unable to supply food efficiently, people began to abandon their jobs and began searching for ways to acquire personal gains," he said in 2004.

In the temporary vacuum of state authority that accompanied the chaos of the famine years, bartering spawned a scruffy network of private markets. By the time Kim's government reasserted control at the end of the decade, small-town farmers markets, street-corner hawkers, roadside vendors and traders with stalls in big-city markets were keeping millions of North Koreans alive.

By 2002, Kim had approved limited reforms that allowed some of the traders to be licensed -- de facto recognition that they could provide what his government could not.

Market economies seem to be inevitable. I don't know of any country where trying to do away with a free market system has not eventually led to famines and other large-scale breakdowns in basic goods and services. (I'll post sometime about what I saw in post-Communist Poland's hospitals and medical offices and why I'm not excited for government to become even more involved in health care in the USA.)

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