Wednesday, September 23, 2020

In defence of the profit motive

In the media space over-populated by left-leaning commentators and columnists, Dichaba Molobe is alone on the right ÔÇô championing the cause of free markets, and less government intervetion in business.

His weekly column in Mmegi hits at (and ridicules) political correctness, multiculturalism, the environment lobby, what is left of the Socialist camp ÔÇô and celebrates the virtues of Capitalism.
I’ve lost count of the number of times he mentions “happiness” ÔÇô which he identifies as the underlying bedrock of his ideas.

“I believe in happiness. I’m driven by the need to be happy. I’m not angry; there is no outrage in my writing. I just believe in individual liberty, limited government, and free markets,” he says.
Without so much a pause, he poses: “What’s the flip side?”

I shrug my shoulders.

“The flip side,” he elucidates, “is a big government that wants to take care of our lives. No government in the world has done that, and no government can ever do that.”

He argues that principles of individual liberty equate human nature; that we all want to be left alone in our individual space without many “dos” and “don’ts”. He holds the success of the rich countries on systems that are underpinned by the realisation that individual liberty must take primacy.
And the result?

“The result is happiness, of course,” he laughs. “Without happiness there is outrage and revolution, and I sense a lot of anger in the media. If you are not for free markets, you will always be angry.”
But China is booming?

“Yes, China is booming,” he concurs.

Even without much individual liberty to speak of?
“At some point, they will have to deal with these issues. Somewhere along the line people will want to be free. Already they (Chinese government) are giving people some space. You can now own and run a private company, and dispose of it the way you want. Happiness is already on the way. I can’t emphasise this enough. The only way for a successful economy is when government’s role recedes. Where there are no individual liberties and there is a big government that wants to run everything, including kindergartens, and employs everybody, the economy declines and poverty sets. There is no happiness in such a state; only doom and gloom. The textbook example is our neighbour.”

When Molobe explains how his thinking and ideas have evolved over the years, he uses Winston Churchill’s famed quotation: “If you are not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you are not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” As a young boy at secondary school, he found nothing wrong with free markets, and it seemed to make sense to let people live the way they wanted, and be free to worship or not.

Then he got to university, and radicalization set in. Part of the literature he got exposed him to what he terms “left-wing propaganda”.

“I started reading Marx and all those people. And the effect is that you change a bit. You begin to think that government can change everything; you start hating hard work, and you think rich people are stealing from the poor; you believe in utopia of equality because it’s much easy to complain about inequality. We used to talk of equality, but we never defined what that equality was. When I finished university, I got into the real world, and I got back to my senses.

“This wasn’t unique to me. That’s what a lot of people go through. It was natural progression.”
He has commented a number of times on why Botswana is struggling to attract more FDI, and his prognosis is simple. He repeats it today, and that is Batswana don’t appreciate that they are competing with other nations who offer superior facilities and a much better investment climate. He points to a belief among the locals that their country is entitled to investors. Of course, the truth is that it is not. He identifies the starting point as an appreciation of the many disadvantages that Botswana has: small market, landlocked, and an arid climate that does not offer the water sports so much loved by the Major League super rich.

“We are in a buyer’s market because we are the ones who want these people to come here, and we should give them more than what they would get elsewhere,” Molobe says. “They are not going to take away anything from us. We should cut down on the bureaucracy and red tape that we put them through, and reduce the rhetoric of citizen empowerment, especially at political level. If we don’t, we run the danger of alienating the people we want to attract. We have to go an extra mile to invite talented people, especially those who bring skills and technology. We need to appreciate that people are not dying to come to Botswana. We should treat talented and skilled expatriates like kings.”

After such sharp rebuke, he warns against being “too harsh on ourselves”. He says there are a number of successes worth celebrating ÔÇô and among these is that government has managed to grow the economy to be where it is currently. But he warns against celebrating the goal for too long before the game is over. There is more still to be done. For instance, the dithering stance on privatization is something to be addressed like yesterday. He believes there has been too much talk on the subject, and the time for action is long past.
While Molobe appreciates the fears of the labour movement about possible job losses and dislocations, he points out that these will only be in the short term. With time, he argues, the market will correct the ruptures.

“Look, I know we are going to do this thing ultimately, but I don’t want us to do it under duress,” he explains. “We shouldn’t do it under fiscal or tax pressure. This is the right time to do it well.”

Molobe is among the few commentators who have faulted Parliament’s attempt to halt privatization of Air Botswana. In one column, he questioned the logic of people who want government to hang onto a bleeding passenger carrier. His conclusion was that the frenzy underlined everything that is wrong with the national psyche, which seems to be that government is a rich father. He finds that the belief that government is wealthy tends to cloud sound judgment. Thus, while good business sense is to dispose of a loss-making operation, in the case of Air Botswana government is being urged to continue bailing it out on the sentiment that it is a national airline. Molobe’s advice is to sell the damn thing now, and sell it to whoever. He finds the agitation that citizens should have a stake in the privatized airline misplaced.

“I’m not bothered who eventually buys Air Botswana, even if they are from Iceland. My only concern is that whoever buys it must do so at market value. I wouldn’t want a situation where people get it for free, or it is undervalued,” he says.
To the sentiment that it might not be strategic to sell a national airline to foreign interests, Molobe wants the debate to be broadened to include “the guy in Bokspits”. He asks if the priority for “this guy” is a new fleet for Air Botswana or life-saving drugs. If the issue were put to a vote, he believes for a vast majority of people, they would be better off with more health facilities and drugs, than the airline. He does not understand why this should be such a contentious issue given that only a few people fly ÔÇô and they would still do, anyway, whether there is Air Botswana or not.
He reads double standards in the media commentators’ opposition to the disposal of Air Botswana.

“The media want a set of rules for themselves, and a different set for others. The media houses are privately run, but they have a problem with an airline that is privately owned. One can argue that may be we should nationalize the newspapers,” he says.

“I support private newspapers and private airlines.”
He talks of an assault on one of the traditional values of Batswana, which is faith and religion. While he understands that Botswana is not a religious state, he has a problem with secularism seeking to turn itself into state religion. He has noticed a growing trend that makes it somehow in vogue to bash the Church, especially the Catholic Church.

“We forget that we were founded on faith, which permeates our lives. This trend does not only happen in Botswana. One notices it even in the United States. You find terms like ‘the religious right’ used for those who want to uphold the right to worship. There is contempt for religion, which is dangerous,” he warns.

He has noticed the same contempt displayed against the military. The major culprits in this instance are people in the academia.

“I respect the military; in fact they are my heroes,” he says. These are people who are prepared to give their lives, so that we live. Nothing can be nobler.”
Molobe has watched environmental groups mushroom, and followed their literature. He believes the whole thing has now gone wayward. He talks of inconsistencies that the global lobby is allowed to get away with. Take the picture 35 years back. Presumably, we were in the era of global cooling ÔÇô and headed towards the Ice Age.
“The Ice Age didn’t happen. Then came the ozone layer, and we were not supposed to have fridges. That has disappeared into thin air as well. Now we are supposed to be headed towards global warming.

“Unfortunately, scientists who dissent are shouted down, and they are not allowed to present their findings at the United Nations. You know what? People who suffer from the antics of the environment lobby are the poor. For instance, from next month retailers in Botswana are going to sell plastic bags, thereby passing the cost of green politics to the consumer.

“The whole thing is driven by leftwing thinkers and the unhappy lot. Countries that were not part of the Kyoto arrangement have done more to improve their environment because they used good technology. They could afford the technology because they enjoyed good economic growth. What would happen if we were to do away with Mmamabula, and in its place put wind-powered technology? Well, the truth is such technologies can’t power a factory. They can’t power an economy. Wind power is unreliable and expensive to run. These are issues that will hurt the poor, economic growth, and happiness,” he says.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.