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Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?

Anyone can become a billionaire  . . .  if they move to Zimbabwe.  Yesterday, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, the country’s central bank, unveiled a new $50 billion note, worth a little more than one greenback.  In August, Harare knocked ten zeros off its currency.  After the maneuver, a newspaper cost $10.  Now it takes a little more than $15 billion to buy one.  Good luck trying to find someone willing to accept Zimbabwe’s money.

The currency is not the only thing disintegrating:  Since Robert Mugabe won the election in June-he was the only candidate-the country itself has fallen apart.  Famine, disease, government failure, societal collapse-Zimbabwe has got it all.  Now citizens, due to various factors, are dying in large numbers. Douglas Gwatidza, chief of Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights says, “The whole country is turning into some kind of giant mortuary.”

Analysts correctly point out that the multi-decade misrule of the above-mentioned Mr. Mugabe is responsible for his country’s plight.  Yet this is not just the problem of one bad autocrat.  Of course, the country’s form of government is the fundamental problem.   It’s not that Zimbabwe needs a better dictator; it needs to have none of them.

Democracy seems to have been stagnating in recent years, as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2008 Index of Democracy suggests.  The EIU survey indicates that the global financial crisis could even threaten the very concept of representative governance in some parts of the world.  Yet so far the general downturn is hitting the autocracies especially hard, potentially undermining the stability of hardline societies from Iran to Venezuela.  Even the governments of the two largest authoritarian states, Russia and China, are now at risk.  “The crisis in the West is purely economic,” says Li Qiang of China Labor Watch.  “But in China it’s a huge political problem.” As it is in Putin’s increasingly repressive domain.

General prosperity, in the wake of the fall of Soviet communism, made all dictators appear strong.  Now, however, we are seeing the inherent weaknesses of authoritarianism.  “Until the tide goes out you don’t know who’s swimming naked,” said Warren Buffett in better times.

The tide is receding, and Mugabe is playing out his last days in power.  Whether their problems are of longstanding nature-such as Zimbabwe’s-or of newer vintage, autocracies appear to be in jeopardy.  We should be thinking at this time of how to get rid of them all.



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