[Book Shelf] Bad Samaritans

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-Written by Jae-hyun Kim

A few years ago while roaming around my favorite Young-Pung bookstore, I found this seemingly interesting book titled “Bad Samaritans” written by Ha-Joon Chang, professor at Cambridge.

I am sure that you must be familiar with ‘good Samaritans’ if you are a pious Bible reader. According to the Bible, Samaritans are considered ‘good’ or morally straight as they were the only ones, out of a myriad of people passing by, who saved the person in danger about to get killed by a thief. Similarly, the birth of the Good Samaritans law, which prohibits anyone from bypassing people in danger even though the acting of saving them does not risk their lives, is not irrelevant to the story of Samaritans receiving the adjective.

However, the book’s title, unlike the good Samaritans from the Bible, represents ‘Bad Samaritans.” This is because professor Chang, throughout the book, sarcastically employs this metaphor to both illustrate and criticize the ‘economic strategies’ that rich countries use to block the path of poor countries to economic richness. According to Chang, rich countries are ‘bad Samaritans’ as they keep ‘helping’ poor countries to adopt a free-trade mechanism, a seemingly successful strategy for all countries in the world as most ‘developed countries’ already adopted this mechanism. However, as Chang claimed, adopting free trade system would be seriously detrimental to countries still in need of economic development as the free-trade mechanism would bring about economic stagnation.

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Throughout the book, successful countries like the United States, the Great Britain and the financial institutions established by these countries such as International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are introduced to point out the self-contradiction of these entities. Primarily, Chang emphasized how the United States adopted protective trade in the late 1800s in order to protect its market from the superior goods overseas. According to him this is a self-contradicting history for the U.S. as it is now the number one advocate of free-trade, spreading the spirit of neo-liberalism over the world including poor countries. Not only U.S. did this but also did Britain follow the similar step. It also started as a poor trade country protecting its industry from superior goods by putting on tariffs.

But, just like the U.S., Britain forgot its ‘childhood’ too soon as it now claims that poor countries should adopt the free-trade system for their own profit instead of protective-trade system. How about IMF and World Bank? Chang said they act like ‘Bad Samaritans’ as well. For example, Korea was ‘rescued’ from financial depression by IMF’s monetary fund. Even though it is thankful for IMF’s decision of saving Korea from the debt, it is undeniable that their decision was for their own good and made at the expense of Korea’s future economic disadvantage, which fortunately turned out to cause no disadvantage. By averting Korea’s protective trade system to free-trade system, IMF enabled many rich countries to devour more profit from the additional free market recently opened in Korea. If Korea had not been an intermediately developed country at that time with a variety of industries prepared for international-level competitions, it would have suffered from tremendous economic loss following its opening the market to a myriad of ‘predator’ industries at the international level. Fortunately, when Korea adopted a free-trade system in 1998 pressured by IMF, it already possessed economically mature industries and markets such as Hyundai Motors and LG Electronics that were ready to fight foreign goods manufactured by the already gigantic companies like Sony, GM, Phillips, GE, and Nokia.

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Anyway, professor Chang demands in his book for rich countries to stop being self-contradicting ‘bad Samaritans’ and do something authentically helpful for poor countries’ economy. In my personal view, I agree with Chang’s viewing of the world’s economy and rich countries’ intention. But, I believe it will be extremely difficult for self-interested countries to authentically sacrifice themselves to help poorer countries unless the whole world is unified under a religious unity characterized by philanthropy. Or, it could be done in another way by founding an international law-making institution whose laws have binding effects on all countries, neutralizing the self-interestedness of humans. Anyway, I really do hope that both rich countries and poor countries select a win-win strategy and find a mutual way to success.

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