Friday, January 14, 2011

A free market would have saved his life

Mohamed Bouazizi was described as an unemployed 26-year-old university graduate who lived in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. On December 17, 2010 he snapped. He grabbed a gun and sprayed a barrage of bullets on a gathering organized by his government representative--no, wait! That's not his story. Let's see... he snapped - bought a gun, went to his university, emptied a magazine in a classroom full of students and then turned the gun on himself... hm... doesn't sound right, either.

Maybe this is it: Mohamed snapped - he left his family and joined the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. On December 17 he put on a suicide vest and walked into the crowded city center of Sidi Bouzid...

Mohamed Bouazizi is dead now.

Mohamed is indeed dead, but his story isn't either of these. Mohamed's story is different and, unfortunately, already forgotten. It goes like this:

Mohamed Bouazizi was 26-year-old university graduate. He grew up in a white stuccoed house, on a dirt road near the edge of Sidi Bouzid. [1] After finishing college he couldn't find a job in his field of study. But he was unemployed only in the sense that John Jacob Astor was unemployed when he was roaming the woods of Northern Michigan.

This Mohamed, not unlike John Jacob Astor, was a trader - he sold fruits and vegetables from a cart in his hometown. He took initiative, put his own capital at risk, exerted effort humbly (he was, after all, a college graduate selling produce on the street) to earn a meager living. Thus he supported his family. Mohamed provided fresh food to the people of his town and by competing with the other sellers he helped keep prices low for all consumers.

Just because nobody in Tunisia offered Mohamed Bouazizi a job, he did not jump on a boat to immigrate to Italy or France, as many of his countrymen did. Nor did he spend his days idly at the town's coffee shops or tea houses lamenting his plight. He didn't join Al Qaeda, much less strap on a suicide vest. He became an entrepreneur.

"Mohamed hoped most to buy his own van," said his sister, Samia Bouazizi, 19. "But he wanted it for work, not for himself." [1]

On December 17 the authorities approached Mohamed, told him he did not have the right to sell vegetables because he did not have a permit, and confiscated his inventory. Mohamed snapped - he got some gasoline, poured it over himself, and set himself ablaze in the main city street. He died from his burns two weeks later.

Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation has sparked nation-wide protests in Tunisia with police murdering dozens of protesters, and the unrest has forced the president Ben Ali to flee the country. The political turmoil is now the lead story.

But this simple fact remains: if Tunisian police had left alone Mohamed Bouazizi to sell his fruits and vegetables he isn't likely to have set himself on fire. Perhaps one day he would have earned and saved enough to buy a beat-up old van. With that old van he would have been able to bring more fruits and vegetables from farther away, providing greater variety, and possibly lower prices, to the people of Sidi Bouzid. He may have even made a little more money for himself and his family. Then maybe he could have bought a newer van, and then another. And as the little business grew, he may have needed to hire a couple of sales people to work his fruit stalls. And then he may have needed someone to keep track of the books, and hired a young Tunisian with an accounting degree, and then maybe somebody with a marketing, and then with operations degrees... And maybe then he would have hired an architect, and a builder, and borrowed money from a bank to build a refrigerated warehouse on the outskirts of town. The architect would have made some money, and so would have the builder, and the bank, and all of their employees... And so it goes.

Laissez-fiare, in plain English, means simply "let Mohamed sell his produce." That's the free market. If you think it sounds like a fantasy, read John Jacob Astor's story. For the alternative, read the news from Tunisia.