By Amy Chua
Reviewed by Jon Ford, CFP®
I'll never look at geopolitical events the same. Amy Chua was a top-notch keynote speaker at FPA Seattle 2007. She presented what I thought must be an overly pessimistic look at the effect of promoting democracy around the world. Her book, World on Fire, describes an even more frightening view of events when democracy is foisted upon countries where a small ethnic minority owns a large majority of the economic wealth. This concept is basic to understanding the book.
The author, a professor at Yale Law School, was born and raised in the United States, but her family's roots are in the Philippines. She tells the story of her aunt's throat being slit by a Filipino chauffeur, for no reason other than that she represented the controlling Chinese minority, and he the poor indigenous majority. The police log indifferently listed the cause of death as "revenge."
So begins the story of World on Fire. In three parts and twelve chapters, Chua presents case after case of countries where free markets have produced rags-to-riches stories for an ethnic minority population, while leaving an ethnic majority in rags. Frighteningly, the predictable consequences of democratizing these countries is often an uprising of screaming mobs that torch, murder, rape, and otherwise brutalize members of the wealthy minority. The extinction of entire groups of minorities has been a too common goal of poor ethnic majorities when democracy empowers them.
Chua takes readers from one horrendous scenario to another. From her family's experiences in the Philippines, the Chinese majority in Southeast Asia, "white" (more lightly colored) wealth in Latin American, and Jewish wealth in Russia under Putin, to market dominant minorities in Africa. Expulsions, property seizures, even genocide: terrifying consequences of "Serbia for Serbs," "Yids out of Russia," "Hutu Power," and other vengeful slogans designed to incite a country's "true owners." She carefully illuminates why the rest of the world, viewing itself as the collective poor majority, has such passionate feelings of hatred and revenge toward the most wealthy minority in the world—the United States.
The answer to this, the author says, is not to scapegoat democracy; instead, Chua suggests working toward leveling the playing field between wealthy minorities and poor majorities. Further, she suggests giving poor majorities a greater stake in global markets, promoting liberal rather than illiberal democracies, and that the United States stop peddling our version of democracy as a cure-all. After all, she points out, we have had more than 200 years to work out the bugs, and we're still working on it.
Chua emphatically points out that she is not painting all rich-minority, poor-majority ethnic scenarios with the same brush. However, I still find myself looking over my shoulder wondering to which poor majority my family and I represent a wealthy, controlling minority. Where the author takes a macroscopic geopolitical view, I wonder if the psychopathology that results in murderous acts of individuals on college campuses or in other public places may not also result from real or delusional perceptions of being part of a down-trodden and abused minority. Read this book for a brilliant, but sobering notion of humanity today. I guarantee you'll regard world events in a different way.
Jon Ford, CFP®, is president of CF Financial Planning Solutions Inc. in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He writes a weekly "Financial Fundamentals" column for the Cedar Falls Times.
Random House Inc.
$14.95 list price (paperback, 346 pp.)
Available at major booksellers