The Raleigh News-Observer tells the tale of Zimbabwean refugees Wally and Helen Herbst, and how they lost everything to Robert Mugabe’s “land reforms” several years ago. It is a tale of forced redistribution of wealth and the personal cost to those who find themselves designated by government as a loser in the transaction. Ten years ago, they owned land and used it to produce both jobs and food for their nation, but all of that ended with a visit from the military (via Michelle):
By 1997, Mugabe announced his plan to seize white farms and redistribute the land. Five years later, Helen was home eating lunch when an employee rushed to tell her that police were parked at the gate and wanted to speak with her.
Sitting at the kitchen table in the couple’s apartment in Ayden, Helen remembers vividly what happened next. Two Mazda pickups, bristling with armed police, were waiting for her. Their leader snatched the gate’s keys from the employee and turned to Helen.
“This is no longer your property. You have 24 hours to get out,” he told her. If you don’t, “we’ll kill you or put you in jail, whichever you prefer.”
It was not an idle threat. In 2000, war veterans killed a neighbor after he refused to leave his farm.
The Herbsts prided themselves on the relationships they formed with their black employees, many of whom worked with the family for years. The couple had provided a pre-school on the property for workers’ children, and a free health clinic where mothers could take their babies. Wally had hoped that his family’s longstanding ties to the area would spare his farm from seizure.
In the end, it did not matter. With the help of neighbors and friends and their vehicles, the Herbsts were forced to pack up as much as they could. Police pilfered from the trucks as the woman who would be moving into their home gave demands.
A few points should be made clear. White owners controlled a vastly disproportionate amount of land in the former colony of Rhodesia, and some land reforms were inevitable if the nation was to learn to live peacefully. Families like the Herbsts were likely to lose some of their land no matter what kind of government followed Rhodesia in the post-colonial era. A rational land-reform plan based on free-market principles and compensation for private-property owners could have provided a stable transition to a more prosperous and united future for Zimbabwe.
Instead, Robert Mugabe robbed landowners at gunpoint, and murdered more than a few to make evictions less troublesome for the rest. In the name of redistribution and fairness, Mugabe stole land that had fed most of the continent from the farmers who had the expertise and resources for production and gave it to cronies and tribal allies who didn’t.
This produced depressingly predictable results. The Soviet Union and communist China had conducted similar land purges earlier in the century, and they had resulted in massive famines, economic collapse, and even greater oppression to stop the people from revolting against the government. In Zimbabwe, the scenario has unfolded in the same manner. Instead of being a major agricultural exporter, Zimbabwe now relies on food aid to keep its people from starving while its land lies fallow. Their economy now experience nine-figure inflation rates, making its currency suitable only for wallpaper.
And what has been Mugabe’s response? Even tighter government control of capital, making the situation even worse.
Redistributionism through capital seizure has always failed to produce a livable economy. Where capital can flee, it does. Where it cannot, it disappears into massive government bureaucracies and into the pockets of cronies and political allies. Zimbabwe is a more extreme example, but still instructive, especially for the reaction of redistributionists when they face failure. They never revert back to the principle of private property, but instead accelerate their confiscatory practices, until no capital remains to rebuild their economy.
It’s a failed principle, with numerous examples of catastrophic impact on nations, and uncountable personal examples like the Herbsts. After a hundred and more years of redistributionist disasters, we should be smart enough to reject the entire notion by now.