Sometimes economies can't be fixed after decades of statist misdirection, and the people simply get up and go. Since the debt crisis of the 1980s, 10 million poor Mexicans—victims of a post-revolutionary policy that kept rural Mexicans trapped on government-owned collective farms—have migrated to the United States. Today, Egyptians and Syrians face economic problems much worse than Mexico's, but there is nowhere for them to go. Half a century of socialist mismanagement has left the two Arab states unable to meet the basic needs of their people, with economies so damaged that they may be past the point of recovery in our lifetimes.
This is the crucial background to understanding the state failure in Egypt and civil war in Syria. It may not be within America's power to reverse their free falls; the best scenario for the U.S. is to manage the chaos as best it can.
Of Egypt's 90 million people, 70% live on the land. Yet the country produces barely half of Egyptians' total caloric consumption. The poorer half of the population survives on subsidized food imports that stretch a budget deficit close to a sixth of the country's GDP, about double the ratio in Greece. With the global rise in food prices, Egypt's trade deficit careened out of control to $25 billion in 2010, up from $10 billion in 2006, well before the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
In Syria, the government's incompetent water management—exacerbated by drought beginning in 2006—ruined millions of farmers before the May 2011 rebellion. The collapse of Syrian agriculture didn't create the country's ethnic and religious fault lines, but it did leave millions landless, many of them available and ready to fight.
Egyptians are ill-prepared for the modern world economy. Forty-five percent are illiterate. Nearly all married Egyptian women suffer genital mutilation. One-third of marriages are between cousins, a hallmark of tribal society. Only half of the 51 million Egyptians between the ages of 15 and 64 are counted in the government's measure of the labor force. If Egypt counted its people the way the U.S. does, its unemployment rate would be well over 40% instead of the official 13% rate. Nearly one-third of college-age Egyptians register for university but only half graduate, and few who do are qualified for employment in the 21st century.
That is the tragic outcome of 60 years of economic policies designed for political control rather than productivity. We have seen similar breakdowns, for example in Latin America during the 1980s, but with a critical difference. The Latin debtor countries all exported food. Egypt is a banana republic without the bananas.
The world market pulled the rug out from under Egypt's mismanaged economy when world food prices soared beginning in 2007 in response to Asian demand for feed grain. Meantime, the price of cotton—on which Mr. Mubarak had bet the store—declined. Now Egypt's food situation is critical: The country reportedly has two months' supply of imported wheat on hand when it should have more than six months' worth. For months, Egypt's poor have had little to eat except bread, in a country where 40% of adults already are physically stunted by poor diet, according to the World Food Organization. When the military forced President Mohammed Morsi out of office last week, bread was starting to get scarce.
Since 1988, Bashar Assad's regime misdirected Syria's scarce water resources toward wheat and cotton irrigation in pursuit of socialist self-sufficiency. It didn't pan out—and when drought hit seven years ago, the country began to run out of water. Illegal wells have depleted the underground water table. Three million Syrian farmers (out of a total 20 million population) were pauperized, and hundreds of thousands left their farms for tent camps on the outskirts of Syrian cities.
Assad's belated attempt to reverse course triggered the current political crisis, the economist Paul Rivlin wrote in a March 2011 report for Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center: "By 2007, 12.3 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty and the poverty rate had reached 33 percent. Since then, poverty rates have risen still further. In early 2008, fuel subsidies were abolished and, as a result, the price of diesel fuel tripled overnight. Consequently, during the year the price of basic foodstuffs rose sharply and was further exacerbated by the drought. In 2009, the global financial crisis reduced the volume of remittances coming into Syria."
The regime cut tariffs on food imports in February 2011 in a last-minute bid to mitigate the crisis, but the move misfired as the local market hoarded food in response to the government's perceived desperation, sending prices soaring just before Syria's Sunnis rebelled.
Economic crisis set the stage for political collapse in Egypt and Syria, even if it wasn't the actual spur. The two Arab states are, of course, not the only nations ruined by socialist mismanagement. But unlike Russia and Eastern Europe, they have no pool of skilled labor or natural resources to fall back on. In this context, Western concerns about the niceties of democratic procedure seem misguided.
The best outcome for Egypt in the short run is subsidies from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to tide it over. Egypt's annual financing gap is almost $20 billion, and it is flat broke. The price of such aid is continuing to sideline the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Gulf monarchies consider a threat to their legitimacy. The Gulf states have pledged $12 billion in response to Morsi's overthrow, averting a near-term economic disaster. That's probably the best among a set of bad alternatives.
Syria may not be salvageable as a political entity, and the West should consider a Yugoslavia-style partition plan to stop ethnic and religious slaughter. Even the best remedies, though, may come too late to keep the region from deteriorating into a prolonged period of chaos.
Mr. Goldman, president of Macrostrategy LLC, is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and the London Center for Policy Research.