Two years ago, I wondered about the importance of property rights in economic growth. The reason for my doubt was the example of Greece. The country has terrible property rights, yet managed to grow remarkably quickly between 1950 and 1980. As illustrated in the below figure (nicked from here), its annual output per worker rose from the level of Colombia to the level of France, before falling slightly behind.
Well, what happened? One useful line of inquiry might be to dig deeper into history. In 1950, Greece had suffered greatly from World War 2 and the subsequent Greek Civil War. It is entirely plausible that the country possessed reserves of human capital far in excess of its contemporaneous Latin American counterparts. Maybe there is nothing miraculous about its catch-up economic growth in the subsequent decades.
But then I came across a recent paper by Carmen Reinhart and Christoph Trebesch. On page 11, I spotted this rather stunning figure:
Now, the aid between 1946 and 1949 went to fight the war, but it meant that the opportunity cost of equipping the Greek National Army was essentially zero. It also meant that Greek civilians avoided much privation that might otherwise have been expected. In fact, the economy managed to grow during the war, albeit from the depressed levels at the end of the Axis occupation. (See page 30 here.)
American aid continued after the war, however. In fact, it was not until 1961 that high levels of direct support metamorphosed into (rather soft) loans.
To be frank, I do not think that American aid caused rapid Greek postwar growth. I am still not sure what caused that. But even had Greece avoided a Communist takeover without the aid, the chances are very high that the country would have slid into counterproductive redistributionist battles had American taxpayers not agreed to cover Greece’s continuing current account deficits. My prior would be that a counterfactual Greece without American aid would go the way of Argentina, at best. Some catch-up growth, rapidly petering out, followed by relative stagnation at the level of a wealthy Latin American country.
Of course, we did it to keep the Communists at bay, not promote Greek economic growth. But it makes you wonder. Could foreign aid at the right time have kept Argentina, for example, from running off the rails in the postwar decade?
And what was it about Greece, anyway, that let it catch up so fast to the rest of Western Europe once aid covered the cracks? There had to be something else different about the place compared to Argentina or Mexico. No?