Happy Birthday, Botswana

Its prosperity and stability a testament to its first president, who did not seek to destroy the market economy he inherited.


Last Friday, Botswana celebrated 50 years of independence. The former Bechuanaland Protectorate gained independence from Great Britain on September 30, 1966 and has thrived ever since. In far too many African countries, "Independence Day" has been a cause for lamentation, not celebration. Regrettably, African independence came at the worst possible moment. The 1960s was a decade when many Western countries seemed to have suffered a collective mental breakdown. In contrast, the USSR seemed to be doing rather well. The Soviets eclipsed the United States in the Space Race and, following the Cuban Revolution, communism gained a permanent foothold in the Americas. Appalled by the injustices of the colonial rule—and ignoring some of its benefits—Africans cast away the European yoke along with some of its more beneficial features: representative democracy, property rights, rule of law, free enterprise, and international trade. Understandably, but catastrophically, many African countries opted for the opposite of what the West had to offer and embraced socialism instead.

Not so with Botswana—a country that has been politically and economically freer than the rest of Africa for much of the last half-century. Why? Seretse Khama, the first president, was a tribal chief who maintained the tradition of public meetings, or kgotlas. Kgotlas were the traditional way in which Africans made local decisions. It was a good way in which to keep the chiefs honest and accountable. When I visited the country in 2007, a game warden I spoke to in the Chobe National Park reminisced about standing behind the minister of education in the line for groceries. A shop manager recognized the minister and motioned her to the front of the line. The minister flatly refused. The exceptional humility of Botswana's politicians is just one positive consequence of such "grassroots democracy."

Khama's economics were also out of step with the times. He maintained a relatively "hands-off" approach to the economy, which was, for decades, the freest in Africa. Personally, I think that Khama, in addition to being a highly educated man (he was a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford) was prevented from economic experimentation by geopolitical necessity. Back then, Botswana was surrounded by the immensely powerful South Africa in the south, South Africa–dominated South West Africa in the west, and Rhodesia in the east. Neither government would have tolerated a Marxist state in its midst. And so Khama did a couple of sensible things—he kept the market economy he inherited and did not even bother to waste money on an independent military. Today, the prosperity and stability of Botswana is a testament to his enlightened leadership.

Economic freedom in Bostwana has constistently been higher than the African average.

Thanks to this higher economic freedom, Botswana's per-person GDP has increased rapidly. It passed the African average in the mid-1970s and has made steady progress since.

Botswana's life expectancy quickly recovered from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, rising to retake its place above the continental average.

While autocracy mired many of its African neighbors, Botswana maintained a relatively high level of democracy for the continent.

Botswana has managed to control corruption within its borders better than Africa as a whole.

Enabling much of this progress, Botswana's rule of law has also exceeded Africa's for decades.

NEXT: EpiPens and Government Cheese

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  1. Neither government would have tolerated a Marxist state in its midst.

    I wish Mexico and Canada had that kind of pull.

    1. A social justice state and a narco-anarchy? Why would you want them to have more influence over us?

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  2. So, do I add Botswana to my very small list of reasonable bugout options?

    1. The only metrics we saw were compared to the rest of Africa.

      how does it stack up against the countries we're used to?

      1. Good question. Also, are they down with teh gunzz?

      2. Not bad, although Mauritius is apparently a better option in Africa.

        1. -1 dodo

        2. I'd like to challenge this. The land of the ASBO is more free than us? Where they have common sense knife regulation? I'm... skeptical of these rankings.

          1. Oh. Economic freedom. Never mind. Yes, you probably can start a falafel stand with less paperwork than a taco truck.

    2. You wouldn't wanna do that. It's real survival of the fittest there.

  3. Unpossible. I've been informed in these very comments sections that Africans are incapable of ever having a stable, freedom-valuing civil society.

    1. Well, it's only because they are not Muslim.

  4. But who is going build the roads? Huh?

    Don't have an answer for that, do you? I didn't think so!

    1. Botswana has only a few decent paved roads,but hard packed sand suffices when there is little rain.

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  6. Excellent article. Please Reason. I would really like to see more of these sorts of real-world examples of how other countries are actually making themselves incrementally freer. And please drill down beyond the macro stats.

    I am so freaking sick of litmus test articles about the US. For whatever reason (cultural blind spots or self-interested donors), we aren't going to change the US for the better by focusing on the US. We aren't that free anymore. We're going in the wrong direction. We've already revised our own history to serve current politics rather than to inform us. And as long as the rest of the world is ignored while libertarians focus on ideological purity and theorizing; then people with other political objectives will be able to point to other countries examples while libertarians are left with - Somalia.

    1. Somalia? Really? Switzerland is a much better example of a decentralized government that has a policy of neutrality, a free enterprise economy, and financial responsibility. The Swiss value thrift, hard work, privacy, sound money, and limited government.

      I like to think about three elements in ranking a country: liberty, peace, and prosperity. No country is perfect, but I think Switzerland ranks high on all three elements.

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  9. They managed to keep their economy freer than most of their neighbours, but they still have some idiot Socialism. Does the government still have the monopoly on meat-packing?

    Oh well. It's still much better than most of the others.

    I'm going to go listen to some Slizer 1tyme now.

    1. It's far from perfect but seems reasonably sane compared to the immediate surroundings.

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  12. Botswana is mostly desert,overrun with termites & elephants.
    Has trouble growing it's own food,but thrives in a humble way because
    of the freedom allowed its people.

  13. Small, ethnically homogeneous population. (79% Tswana.)
    Mostly Christian.
    0.25% Muslim.
    Former British colony.

    Yes, these things matter.

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