Myths of the Evil Colonialists
The latest, trendiest ooze from the Left is colonialism, with its magic, far-reaching tentacles of injustice, unfairness, and ruination. It trickles through multiple generations, even beyond the time when it came to an end.
Francis Menton, aka the Manhattan Contrarian, invites you to enjoy a hearty laugh. On 1 January, the front page of the NYT headline fussed, “In Philippines, Impoverishment Is a Legacy of U.S. Colonialism” (different headline online).
True, concurs Mr. Menton, The Philippines is a relatively improvised country.
(But) there are plenty that are poorer, none of which were ever colonies of the U.S. This list from Wikipedia of countries ranked by per capita GDP, with data from the IMF, World Bank, and UN, puts the Philippines at 131st in the world by that measure out of 195 countries, with per capita GDP by the median estimate of $3,499 in 2022.
Thus, by this list there are some 64 countries that are poorer than the Philippines.
Poverty, the Legacy of U.S. Colonialism?
The Philippines initially became a colony of Spain in 1565, and stayed in that status for well over 300 years until 1898, when Spain relinquished control to the U.S. as part of the settlement of the Spanish American War. Only 48 years later, the U.S. then granted independence to the Philippines in 1946. That was well before the wave of withdrawals from colonialism by the Europeans in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 60s.
How did the United States keep the Philippines in poverty after the end of the “brief U.S. colonial interlude”? After all, there were 48 years of colonialism and even today, 77 years after that colonialism, the Philippines are still in poverty.
Well, thanks to the NY Times, here’s the answer:
In a region defined by upward mobility through manufacturing, the Philippines stands out as a nation still heavily reliant on agriculture — a legacy of outside rule. Nearly 80 years after the country secured independence [from the U.S.], the colonial era still shapes the structure of its economy. Because the United States opted not to engage in large-scale redistribution of land, families that collaborated with colonial authorities retain oligarchic control over the soil and dominate the political sphere. Policies engineered to make the country dependent on American factory goods have left the Philippines with a much smaller industrial base than many economies in Asia.
AHA!, exclaims Mr. Menton. Could it stem from the failure of the U.S. to “engage in large-scale redistribution of land” a century or so ago, “leaving a small number of families owning all the land”?
In this (NYT’s) piece, that explanation is taken as gospel, without any critical examination of whether it makes any sense, let alone whether it is true.
Mr. Menton has some questions of his own. Conveniently and not surprising, he also has answers.
- Q: Have large-scale land expropriation and redistribution programs had any notable success in reducing poverty in the places where these policies have been tried?
- A: Those familiar with the extensive history of these “land reform” programs in Latin America know that the countries where expropriations have proceeded the farthest (e.g., Bolivia, Cuba) are among the poorest countries today, while countries that halted expropriations before they got too far (e.g., Chile, Colombia) are far more prosperous today.
- Q: What has occurred in countries that never had any programs at all of land expropriation and redistribution?
- A: To take one example, the U.S. never had any such program. The percent of the workforce engaged in agriculture has nevertheless fallen from over 80% in the early 1800s to about 2% today, and the U.S. is by far the most prosperous large economy in the world. And it’s not just the U.S. — the entire “developed” world has never engaged in land redistribution.
- Q: Even if you believe that “land reform” would have been the key for the Philippines to rise out of poverty (it would not have been, but assume that it would), what exactly prevented the country from implementing such a program in the 77 years since the U.S. exited the scene?
- A: …
That’s right, explains Mr. Menton. The above is not an omission. It’s empty because there is no answer. None of this has to make sense. After all, this is the NYT, an ostensibly serious, professional newsroom where its mindless repetition of the favored narrative of the moment takes center stage.
A Brutal Life
To prove his point, Mr. Menton refers to another NYT’s article with the headline, “Life of Coconut Farmers: Born Poor, Staying Poor.” (again, different headline online).
It’s a heartrending tale of the brutal life the Filipino coconut farmer:
People labor six days a week in the tropical swelter, through torrential rains and under the punishing sun. Their pay is determined by the price of coconut oil as influenced by traders around the globe. The typical farmer earns perhaps 60,000 pesos a year — about $1,100. “We are poor here,” Mr. Limbaro said on a recent morning, as a steady drizzle turned the reddish soil to mud. “We buy only sardines and rice. For most people here, the life they are born into is the life they will lead.”
Farmers typically harvest coconuts from their own small holdings, removing the husks and selling much of the shell-encased fruit within to agents for processing plants that make juice.
Whoa! Wait a minute here! Small farmers own their own land?
This after we had just been told a few inches up the same page that the reason for the poverty is the failure of the U.S. to redistribute the land causing it all to remain in the hands of a few families with “oligarchic control.”
… put simple consistency, along with asking of the most obvious questions, on the list of things not required in a story from the New York Times.
What to Do?
Francis Menton suggests, “if New York Times reporters want some real information on why the Philippines is relatively poor compared to, say, Taiwan or South Korea,” why not pursue some realistic ideas?
Unfortunately for the NYT, a story on those issues would not advance the “evil colonialists” narrative. Mr. Menton suggests how to get the real story on why the Philippines is relatively poor compared to, say, Taiwan or South Korea:
… they *NYT’s reporters) might look to things like the investment climate; or maybe to the proclivity of the Philippine government to hand out special economic favors and franchises to cronies of those in power.
But then, a story on those issues would not advance the “evil colonialists” narrative.