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Break me off a piece of Costa Rica

A HAPPY Canadian emigre in Costa Rica. Photo by author.

A HAPPY Canadian emigre in Costa Rica. Photo by author.

Nicholas Kristof has a happy-go-lucky column today in the Times about Costa Rica that reads as part tourism advertisement, part political common sense. He goes on and on about how the country is consistently ranked high in “happiness” surveys. This is true. How, then, did they get that way?

What sets Costa Rica apart is its remarkable decision in 1949 to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education. Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America. Education also boosted the economy, enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips and improving English-language skills so as to attract American eco-tourists.

I’m not antimilitary. But the evidence is strong that education is often a far better investment than artillery.

In Costa Rica, rising education levels also fostered impressive gender equality so that it ranks higher than the United States in the World Economic Forum gender gap index. This allows Costa Rica to use its female population more productively than is true in most of the region. Likewise, education nurtured improvements in health care, with life expectancy now about the same as in the United States — a bit longer in some data sets, a bit shorter in others.

Wow, wait, there’s more. Not only do they bother to educate each other, but they make efforts not to destroy the environment—a turn that came only after decades of incredibly destructive government policies, often financed by American business interests.

This emphasis on the environment hasn’t sabotaged Costa Rica’s economy but has bolstered it. Indeed, Costa Rica is one of the few countries that is seeing migration from the United States: Yankees are moving here to enjoy a low-cost retirement. My hunch is that in 25 years, we’ll see large numbers of English-speaking retirement communities along the Costa Rican coast.

This is an understatement. Certain areas of Costa Rica are crawling with Americans. In addition to high happiness rankings, the country is also #1 in the world for lost or stolen US passports, an embassy official there told me.

A poster in a Costa Rican beach town. Prostitution is legal there, just not with children. Note that the sign is in English.

A poster in a Costa Rican beach town. Prostitution is legal there, just not with children. Note that the sign is in English.

A pressing question, then, is what effect this influx of Americans is having there. When I spent a month last summer with the photographer Lucas Foglia traveling around Costa Rica meeting American expats, there were two main patterns we found: a leisure class intent on exploiting the locals as much as possible in search of a low-cost paradise, and an idealistic frenzy of folks Going Back to the Land in search of a better, more sustainable way of life—and it wasn’t always easy to separate the one from the other. Often the “English-speaking retirement communities along the Costa Rican coast” that Kristof looks forward to are the least sustainable things going, and they charge prices beyond what the locals can afford. (He also neglects to mention the flourishing sex trade, which is what brings so many aging American men down there in the first place.)

Costa Rica’s example is an incredibly instructive one, but we should be careful not to let it turn into another prime opportunity for careless exploitation. Rather than migrating en masse to benefit from that tiny country’s good decisions—and possibly ruining their effects in the process—Americans should work to follow its example ourselves, at home.