(Many Americans are unhappy with the recent performance of the United Nations in regards to the confrontation with Iraq. But as this essay from 1999 points out, there are plenty of other reasons to be unhappy with the U.N.)

Twenty years ago, a United Nations report listed the United States as consuming 115,540 kilowatt-hours of energy per person per year. At the same time, each person in the tiny central African nation of Burundi was using up just 120 kilowatt-hours. My guess is that today, the average American is still consuming about a thousand times as much energy as the average Burundian. It’s also a safe bet that the “experts” at the United Nations want Americans to feel just as guilty about the disparity today as twenty years ago.

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Is this something about which Americans should flog themselves in unremitting guilt? Does Burundi use less energy because America uses too much? Is world energy a fixed pie, with America greedily hogging more than its quota at the expense of the Burundis of the planet? Would Burundi be better off if America impoverished itself? Questions like these were answered definitively by free market economists decades ago, but like a nagging mother-in-law, they just never go away.

You’ve heard this international class warfare stuff before, from many sources besides the UN. A few years ago, the mantra of the international statist community — repeated endlessly in the media — was this: “Americans are only 6 percent of the world’s population but they consume 40 percent of the world’s energy.” Greed was supposed to be the explanation for this disparity, and the solution offered was for America to spread its wealth in foreign aid gifts to the less fortunate countries of the world.

Energy, of course, wasn’t (and still isn’t) the only thing of which America consumes more than its percentage share of global population. We also eat more than 6 percent of the world’s potato chips and broccoli. We enjoy more than 6 percent of the world’s indoor plumbing, hearing aids, and baseballs. We operate more than 6 percent of the world’s cars, trucks, hang gliders, tricycles and skateboards. We listen to more than 6 percent of all lectures and read more than 6 percent of the world’s books. And we probably put up with more than our share of nonsense too.

The fact is that Americans consume more because Americans produce more. That’s right — more than 6 percent of the world’s potato chips, baseballs, skateboards, and countless other things. If we didn’t first produce, we wouldn’t have it to consume or to trade for what we really wanted. How can such an elementary point, such a basic principle of life and economics, be lost on anyone who doesn’t have to sign his name with an “X”?

Unfortunately, the UN is at it again. In September 1998, it issued a document called “The Human Development Report 1998.” The richest fifth of the world’s nations, declares the report, accounts for 86 percent of private consumption. Never mind the inherently dubious nature of how the UN adds up “private consumption” in almost 200 different countries.

The report is yet another lamentation about how the rich have it and the poor don’t: the richest fifth purchase nine times as much meat, have access to nearly 50 times as many telephones and consume more than 80 times the paper products and motorized vehicles than the poorest fifth. While two billion people worldwide supposedly go without schools and toilets, self-indulgent Americans are painting themselves with $8 billion in cosmetics and Europeans are feasting on $11 billion of ice cream. To reduce these horrid inequalities, the report recommends that “consumption levels among the poor” be increased to “basic” levels.

Think about that. The poor nations don’t consume much now, and the UN tells us that the answer is for them to consume more. How are the poor nations to get more? Change their ways? Produce more, perhaps? If the UN thinks that poor nations’ low productivity is at fault here, there’s little sign of it. As The New York Times revealed, “the report only skirts the issue of what role the poorest nations themselves play in this predicament.”

The sad fact is that in those poor countries like Burundi, indigenous political and cultural barriers to production constitute the overwhelming if not exclusive source of poverty. Routinely, the chronically destitute nations of the world are the ones that make war on private property, keep out foreign investment, impose viciously punitive taxes and regulations, spend inordinate sums on the military, squander resources on corruption and public works boondoggles, and in general, penalize or even kill anybody with enough spunk to start a business. These nations don’t consume much because, as a result of these barriers, they don’t produce much. It’s as simple as that. And it’s no coincidence that reports to the contrary come forth from a world body in which the ranks of the benighted are legion.

What poor nations need to do is to create the enlightened political and cultural conditions whereby capital investment and the resulting production are encouraged instead of suppressed. This is not new information. It’s the same formula by which America emerged from the status of 13 poor backwater colonies to the wealthiest nation on the globe. Utilizing a relatively free economy, America has shown the world how to go from Model T’s to space shuttles in less time than most peoples have taken to get from dirt paths to gravel roads. Other countries from Britain to Hong Kong can boast similar accomplishments as well, and for similar reasons.

It is no disgrace that Americans consume 40 percent of the world’s energy, or whatever the number may really be. Rather, it is a tribute to our ingenuity, creativity, and enterprise. We’ve put our God-given abilities to work within a system that even with all its government intervention is still infinitely more hospitable to production than is the case in Burundi. If we restricted our energy consumption to just 6 percent of the total world supply, our lives would be shorter, less healthy and a lot more painful. There would be fewer of us, and not by choice. The rest of the world would be worse off too because poor people cannot materially do much to help other poor people by either trade or aid.

People who are interested in ending poverty and really solving economic problems would do well to read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and ignore any report that comes out of the United Nations.


(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. This essay first appeared in the January 1999 issue of the Foundation for Economic Education’s monthly Journal, Ideas on Liberty.)