Russia, China, Argentina, and Zimbabwe are all extreme examples of crony capitalism, and therefore useful in defining what we mean by the term. At the same time, they are by no means isolated cases. Most of the world today is crony capitalist to one degree or another.
The kind of political and economic system exemplified by these four countries has clear roots in the “national socialism” developed by Mussolini in Italy and copied by Hitler in Germany. But it was by no means a 20th century invention. The earlier monarchies of Europe and Asia worked in a not dissimilar way. Indeed it may be argued that cronyism is as old as recorded human history and has always been the dominant system.
This is precisely why the human race has made so little progress in overcoming poverty. For most of human history, there has been no economic growth at all. People born poor died poor. Whenever economic capital began to be accumulated, it was generally stolen by rulers or their friends or allies.
The British economist John Maynard Keynes observed in the 1930s that only one treasure trove, taken by the English privateer Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century from a Spanish galleon, the Golden Hind, invested at 3%, would have equaled the entire English economy by the time he wrote. Such is the power of compound interest from a successful business or financial investment. But for most of human history, large-scale investments have been unthinkable. It has not been safe to make them. Treasure was to be spent or hidden.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the world was just as impoverished as it had always been. But very gradually, in some countries, especially in Britain and the newly formed United States, governments learned to be less greedy, to avoid killing the goose of enterprise that laid the golden eggs. Reforms, especially reforms that freed some prices from government control, were achieved, the so-called industrial revolution began, and poverty began to decline, especially by the 19th century.
Even then, reform was limited, cronyism remained strong, and millions remained in poverty despite advances. Outside the more reformed and thus more advanced countries, people remained uncertain about their next meal. How could it be otherwise when their economy was run on crony capitalist lines—principally for the benefit of rulers and powerful allied special interests?