How Important are the Rights of the Poor?
By Russ Roberts
In the Easterly Essay questions, I asked:
Easterly maintains that one of the biggest problems in the development world is that the rights of the poor are not respected. What does he mean by this? What are the implications for development policy?
Read on for two very different answers to this question.The two responses I liked more were from Luke Edwards and Conor Lennon. They are very different:
Luke Edwards writes:
When you start to view society as an organism that evolves, rather than as a machine, it makes you pessimistic about the possibility of spreading prosperity by transplant – it seems as fanciful as grafting gills onto a man. William Easterly advocates for exactly this. He believes that economic development can and should be catalyzed in poor countries by injecting into them institutions evolved in the West – namely democratic government and civil rights.
Based on a complete history of economic development, I have doubts about Easterly’s ideas. The history of development should begin with “the Great Divergence” – a process starting circa 1500 whereby growth in European nations accelerated, leaving the rest of the world behind and escaping the Malthusian trap for the first time. I note that none of the European states of 1500 were modern democracies – but neither were they totalitarian. Mostly they were autocracies that allowed a good deal of economic and social freedoms, freedoms that were protected by custom and by overlapping power hierarchies of king, noble, magistrate, and church.
Over time, some of these multi-polar states evolved into democracies. But many of them were rich before the final victory lap of Democracy in Europe. That came only in the 20th century with the victories of the Anglo-American alliance in the great wars.
Easterly believes that democracy and rights to political speech and protest hold politicians accountable for delivering good policy, and are therefore the keys to kickstarting economic development. But this raises the question of how the rich world did so well without these institutions for so long. Furthermore, the dysfunction of modern American politics serves as a challenge to Easterly’s belief in democratic accountability. In America the approval rating of congress sits below 10% and yet incumbent legislators have near-perfect job safety.
Taking a broader view of the democratic world, the track record of democracy transplanted into foreign soil is poor. In multicultural societies implanted democracy leads not to growth, but to factionalism, infighting, and even civil war. Recent examples of elected governments hounded by religious rivalries in Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan should stand fresh in our minds. Decades earlier the democratization of former European colonies in Africa led to the invention of the sardonic description – “One man, one vote, one time”, describing the repeated process of democratic collapse into civil war and then into dictatorship. Why should people who lived through the cycle once live through it again?
It appears there is some topsoil of tolerant, pluralistic culture that is needed for Western-style democracy to thrive. Before we can use democracy as a development tool, we have to figure out how to make it healthy. If that expertise exists it is not getting to the right places.
Meanwhile, many development success stories happen under autocratic regimes. Sometimes, as in South Korea and Chile, these have transitioned into stable democracies *after* a period of rapid economic growth. In the middle-ground are successful single-party states like Japan, Singapore, and China.
What matters most doesn’t seem to be the form of government, but having leaders who are public-spirited, educated, and strong enough to maintain a monopoly on the use of force. While markets can work fueled solely by self-interest, it seems we have not yet invented a political system which does not rely on wise and just men.
Democratization has been tried, and has failed, in much of the world. Easterly supports democratization in China. If he is wrong and China fractures under democratic rule, how many decades will pass before it stabilizes enough to resumes its rise?
Conor Lennon writes:
To me, Easterly’s use of the word “right” has two distinct meanings in the podcast. The first is that wolves in sheep’s clothing – autocratic government actors masquerading as bastions of democracy – exploit a monopoly on the use of force to limit their electorates’ freedom to think, speak, assemble, and protest. This leaves the poor powerless to hold political actors responsible for abuses of power, corrupt behavior, and explicit support for an oligarchic, faux-democratic society.
The second meaning Easterly implies is that the poor are not granted agency. The poor are simply assumed to be incapable of helping themselves. Therefore, development must be performed for them by so-called “experts.”
Easterly’s two meanings are distinct but connected. Tyrannical institutions leave the poor unable to enact changes which would allow them to flourish and improve their own lot. This institutional failure manifests itself as a lack of infrastructure, poor health, malnutrition, and high rates of infant mortality. Unfortunately, because the lack of infrastructure and poor health are seen, and the institutional problems are unseen, this leads economic “experts” to insist that successful economic development can be reduced to solving a series of technical problems. Essentially, the tyranny of political leaders is so difficult to grasp/measure that “experts” assume that the problem poor people face is a lack of re-
sources. These experts fail to realize that the presence of resources is an outcome of a free and prosperous society and not an input into them.
The simplest illustration of this technical approach is the malaria-reducing bed-net. Easterly echoes Frederic Bastiat when he notes that being against the provision of bed-nets does not mean he wants people to die from malaria. The bed-nets, even if they reach their intended recipients, cannot remove the tyrants from power and are a perfect example of experts imposing their choices, rather than granting agency to the poor. A simple cash transfer would not remove the tyrant either, but it would at least allow people to choose for themselves what it is they want.
Instead, the bed-nets are provided without concern for what it is that would truly help and are a Band-Aid that does not address the fundamental issue of why these people could not afford a bed-net in the first place. A move to a free society, with legal protection of property rights, supported by democratic institutions would be a revelation to these people. Within a free society, the poor could find their own solutions to the problems they face. This is simply because, in a very Hayekian sense, they, and only they, know the best solution to the problems they face.
The implications for development are at least two-fold. Firstly, experts need to be humble. As Easterly says, successful top-down, autocratic interventions are both rare and poorly-understood. While some succeed, only their very best outcomes are comparable to those seen in free, democratic societies (“democracies don’t have famines”). This insight can be viewed as a corollary to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle – “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”
Secondly, if their choices are not being artificially constrained by oppression from corrupt and incompetent government, poor people in these societies must be granted full agency. Their decisions, both individually and those made within and by voluntary collective institutions, must be viewed as rational and optimal. If they do not appear so, the research question at hand must always be “why can I not see why this is the best choice?” rather than “how do I force these people to change?”.
The invisible hand will figure the rest out.