That the North Koreans are failing in this endeavour is small bear. Nor does it matter that the economy might be better served pursuing policies that improve its competitiveness, rather than seeking to circle the laager as competing economies move up the production possibility frontier. Need we be reminded that because the West is culturally not like us, its mistakes cannot instruct us?


Groucho Marx it was who advised that we “Learn from the mistakes of others”. For we, plainly, “can never live long enough to make them all (ourselves)”. The strength of this counsel, it turns out, lies in how we define “others” – more “not us” than “unlike us”, it seems. Of what use would it be to a lion, for instance, to learn from the mistakes of a gnus? In this analogy, “others” must be like us, if their mistakes are to instruct. This (often unsubtle) distinction fed both the institution of slavery and the sentiments around racism in the West. Today, it also provides much of the reasoned argument behind the rise of populist and illiberal movements there.

On the subcontinent, one definition of “others” insists that the world as it is today is an entirely Caucasian construct. That doesn’t perforce make it wrong. Just that its system of values, and its organised structure of rewards and punishment lend expression to one way of looking at things. A perspective that would have been radically different (read “more human”) if it had bothered to include in its elaboration, the indigenous values of non-White peoples that the forbears of today’s world decimated, first through slavery. Then via colonialism. And finally, through the postbellum Bretton Woods order.

In this sense, it is not just the current international order that’s more “alien” than “other”. The mistakes that were made on the road to the eventual design of this order would necessarily be included in this category. From this vantage, not only will “indigenous” (i.e. non-Caucasian) societies be poorly served by seeking to avoid the mistakes that the “pale faces” made on their journey so far. They are better off returning to the idyllic period pre-dating their encounter with the West. Or failing that, they ought to endure the mistakes from embracing perspectives (Soviet Communism, for example) that blow a raspberry at the established global order.

Too much of what passes for critical thought on economic matters in economies such as ours relies disproportionately on the dodgy numbers churned out by the selfsame Breton Woods institutions. And as the extensive debates on social media have locally proven, a less Euro-centric world may even have differed on the name of the dismal profession.


If, therefore, we are to construct a weltanschauung consistent with whom we are, given how different from “the rest of us” the “West” and its worldview are, we cannot learn anything from avoiding the mistakes it purportedly made on its way to where it is today. You don’t have to dwell too long on this perspective to understand why, in Nigeria, at least since the 1970s, we have persisted in the search for a homegrown panacea to our economic woes. It is only in Western economic literature, to take but one example, that inflation arises when government spends (on non-productive activity) more than it earns. As Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is so masterfully demonstrating, a different reading of the subject ought to reveal that inflation (“the mother of all evil”) arises from the push from high interest rates.

A key part of the difficulty with laying out a new, “different” corpus of work around this subject was recently pointed out by no less an expert on the matter than President Muhammadu Buhari (his contribution to an alternate economics – counter-trade, barter, etc. – during his previous incarnation as head-of-state, remain key references still): Too much of what passes for critical thought on economic matters in economies such as ours relies disproportionately on the dodgy numbers churned out by the selfsame Breton Woods institutions. And as the extensive debates on social media have locally proven, a less Euro-centric world may even have differed on the name of the dismal profession. Economics? Why not “Errconomics”?

Today, the biggest experiment in the design of a competing perspective to the West’s obsession with the price mechanism as the nearest best thing to efficiently allocating scarce resources and its fixation on private capital as the best driver of value creation, is underway in Nigeria. In response to a slew of economic problems (including poor productivity levels, rising unemployment, etc.), the Nigerian government recently sealed its land borders. And listening to the central bank governor (who would want that the movement towards autarchy last another two years) on the merits of the border closure, the beneficial impact of this policy pirouette will course through just about every sphere of the economy.

Obviously, Groucho Marx was wrong in one key respect. We are not reinventing the wheel. We simply are rejecting the wheel as a cultural impost. One that has up on till now restricted the horizon of what we can do. Within this emerging cosmogony, our mistakes will be ours to make, and ours alone.


Finally, we get a chance to prove that the West is wrong when it argues that free trade benefits all. And that even when trade tariffs are asymmetrical, the economy with lower tariffs benefits, to the extent that its citizens’ cost of living is lower on account of the reduced prices. And that nonsense about comparative advantage? Wait until we show the world that a country can, like North Korea, close itself to the world, and still be a world beater in new technologies, service levels and production processes.

That the North Koreans are failing in this endeavour is small bear. Nor does it matter that the economy might be better served pursuing policies that improve its competitiveness, rather than seeking to circle the laager as competing economies move up the production possibility frontier. Need we be reminded that because the West is culturally not like us, its mistakes cannot instruct us? Obviously, Groucho Marx was wrong in one key respect. We are not reinventing the wheel. We simply are rejecting the wheel as a cultural impost. One that has up on till now restricted the horizon of what we can do. Within this emerging cosmogony, our mistakes will be ours to make, and ours alone.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

Picture credit: Ayodele Adeniran/The Guardian.