All Commentary
Saturday, July 1, 1995

Investment Biker

Statism Is the Great Political Disease of the Twentieth Century

Jim Rogers autographed my copy of Investment Biker with the words, “Life is short; Ride hard and far.” Rogers closes his highly readable account of the round-the-world motorcycle trip he and girlfriend Tabitha Estabrook accomplished with more words of wisdom: “More important, I’ve also learned that if you’ve got a dream, you have to try it; you must get it out of your system. You will never get another chance. If you want to change your life, do it.” Motorcycles, markets, and musings make this book both provocative and entertaining.

Viewers of the CNBC show “Mutual Fund Investor” will recognize his blend of down-home Alabama folksiness, savvy investment insights, and shrewdly biting public policy comments. Those viewers and other readers will marvel at the observations of Jim riding about China, Russia, Africa, South America and elsewhere, as he records his impressions and predictions about economic policies and investment prospects. Often he saw how bad economic policies and wars had squandered great natural endowments and the labor of the inhabitants.

Why does Jim Rogers want to see and know the world? He hails from the small town of Demopolis, Alabama. His family’s phone number was 5. Just 5. As he says, if you are from somewhere that small you either stay there your whole life or you want to get out and make your mark in the wider world. Despite the folksiness, Rogers is a well-educated and sophisticated man. From Yale he went to graduate school at Oxford with a summer stop on Wall Street along the way. He was a partner in a hedge fund after going to Wall Street full time. Jim left Wall Street in 1980 with millions of dollars.

Jim and Tabitha’s trip—intellectually and geographically—began in Ireland. Let Jim tell this part: “Riding through this part of Ireland was wonderful, great for motorcycles, the roads curvy and small and convoluted, green and beautiful. All my life, from my history courses at Yale to my work at Oxford and later on Wall Street, I’ve studied geography, politics, economics, and history intensely, believing they are interrelated, and I’ve used what I’ve learned to invest in world markets. I was on the lookout for investment opportunities, for some country—and its investment market—about to take off, where I could jump in and make five, ten, fifteen times what I put in.”

Unfortunately, Ireland could not meet Jim’s tests. He worried over its instability but was most concerned about statist policies. The conflict between statism and entrepreneurial capitalism is one of Jim’s key themes. Where statism reigns, decay increases and opportunity decreases. Tied to that conflict is the burden of war frustrating the achievements of peace.

Jim observes that “Ireland is a victim of statism, which my dictionary defines as the concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government, and which I further define as the belief that the state is the mechanism best suited for solving most if not all of society’s ills, be they health related, natural disasters, poverty, job training, or injured feelings. Statism is the great political disease of the twentieth century, with Communist, socialist, and many democratic nations infected to a greater or lesser degree. When the political history of our century is written its greatest story will be how a hundred variants of statism failed.” I would say this is the story that should be written, but I expect that the story told will be how the historians’ preferred brand of statism was not tried with enough rigor or was mishandled.

Unlike economists, Rogers is not merely interested in economic policy or analysis but in scouting out investment prospects. He is none too optimistic about the United States. Bright spots include Botswana. Botswana? Yes, and he tells a great story about why he is optimistic about this small African country.

Investment Biker shows you a world through a unique pair of eyes—badly maintained roads and sweeping natural vistas, economies wrecked by statist mismanagement, and countries torn by renewed tribalism. All this with a country boy’s way with words and a Wall Streeter’s eye for investment opportunities. You can enjoy the ride with Jim Rogers, and think of your gasoline savings. []

Mr. Cooper is an export/import manager and freelance writer.