Monday, March 31, 2014

Should we put our faith in development experts or democracy?

The Tyranny of Experts, by William Easterly, is an important book which deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in economic development.  

Easterly argues persuasively that in viewing economic development as a technical problem requiring expert solutions, development economists have strengthened the hands of autocrats and deprived the poor of their rights.  His examination of economic growth experience suggests that leaders matter very little for either good or ill – the influence of leadership is overshadowed by other factors such booms and busts in commodity prices. 

He concludes:
“This is not good news for the experts. If leaders do not drive growth, then the experts advising them do not drive growth either. The experts had promised to deliver high growth in return for giving them and their autocratic pupils more power. There is no evidence that they have delivered. The growth-payoff justification for the Tyranny of Experts has turned out to be spurious”(p326).

In my view, Bill Easterly’s attack on strong political leaders (and their expert advisers) involves too much collateral damage. My reading of history (as well as my own experience in the economic advice industry) suggests to me that strong political leadership is not always at variance with “spontaneous solutions arising from political and economic rights”. Some strong political leaders have been able to use democratic processes to overcome interest groups which have been using their political muscle to restrict freedom. Surely the relevant choice is between freedom and its alternatives. I will return to this point later.

Bill Easterly argues that proponents of the technocratic approach to economic development have failed to establish that it delivers greater development in exchange for sacrifices in individual freedom. He does not argue that such aid always requires sacrifices in freedom. The technocrats who claim rigorous evidence in favour of some forms of development aid (e.g. treated mosquito nets and deworming drugs) can reasonably claim that such assistance expands opportunities available to individuals without in any way restricting their freedom.

Easterly’s point is that by viewing development as a purely technical problem, the technocrats systemically overlook the human rights abuses of the autocrats they help to keep in power. He cites the example of Meles Zenawi, an Ethiopian autocrat who has been praised by Bill Gates and Tony Blair for reductions in child mortality that may not actually have happened. Zenawi used aid funds to blackmail starving peasants into supporting his regime and he forcefully relocated farmers in the Gambella region to model villages so that he could sell their land to foreign investors.

In some other instances there is a more direct link between aid and the abuse of individual rights. For example, the book begins with the story of a World Bank funded forestry project in the Mubende district of Uganda. This aid project involved the forced evacuation of local farmers to enable a British forestry company to take over their land.

Bill Easterly presents evidence that poor people value freedom as an end in itself, but his defence of freedom is not based entirely on those grounds. He argues that freedom promotes individualistic values that favour economic development. By contrast, autocrats promote the interests of the kingdom (or state) above those of the individual and foster collectivist values that are inimical to economic development. That view is consistent with the recent history of rapid economic growth in countries such as China, as well as with the longer history of economic growth in high income countries. Easterly points out that the rapid economic growth in China can be related to the major change toward greater freedom that occurred in China after 1978.

This might be an appropriate point to return to a discussion of the merits of strong leadership. Autocrats sometimes promote freedom. Mancur Olson’s distinction between the incentives faced by roving and stationary bandits (discussed here a few years ago) comes to mind at this point. However, I am more concerned to defend the strong leadership of democrats like Margaret Thatcher than that of autocrats like Deng Xiaoping.

Bill Easterly recognizes that voting is not a sufficient condition for individual rights, but in my view he does not pay sufficient attention to the current problems of democracies, which were discussed here last week. Some democracies have had relatively good records of defending individual rights and ensuring widespread opportunities for individuals to flourish. In recent years, however, weak leadership in quite a few democracies has permitted an explosive growth of public debt which has ended up subjecting citizens to the “tyranny” of experts in the IMF and ECB. 

Democratic political institutions are not always good enough to ensure that political rights produce spontaneous solutions to economic policy problems.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"What's gone wrong with democracy?"

That was the title of an essay published in The Economist a few weeks ago.

For the most part I think the essay is quite good. That judgement wouldn’t surprise anyone who has read my book, Free to Flourish because the main points in the essay are similar to those in Chapter 8 of my book. The biggest challenge to democracy comes from the tendency of governments to overreach – by creating entitlements that they cannot pay for, or by waging “wars” that they cannot win “such as that on drugs”. The solution lies in finding ways to ensure governments and electors accept appropriate restraint.

However, the essay has got me thinking that there is something odd about the argument that democracy is such a good thing that it needs to be restrained in order to be preserved. I suppose what we might be saying is that democracy is, in some respects, like wine - it is good, but you can have too much of it. If that is what we are saying then we should probably admit that we view democracy as a means to achieve more fundamental objectives, rather than as an end in itself. If we think it is possible to have too much democracy we must be saying that too much democracy would conflict with some fundamental objective that is important to us.

The introduction of The Economist’s essay suggests reasons why people prefer “rules-based democracy” to “corrupt, abusive and autocratic governments”. But, why do we need reasons? If a “rules-based democracy” enables us to avoid or remove corrupt and abusive government, that would have to be better than living under corrupt and abusive government. The end we want to achieve is to enable corrupt and abusive governments to be replaced peacefully. Democracy provides a means to that end. The fact that the democratic systems used in southern Europe don’t seem to have been capable of replacing corrupt governments with non-corrupt governments might suggest to us that those systems of government are deeply flawed.

The reasons given in the essay as to why people prefer democracy are as follows:
“Democracies are on average richer than non-democracies, are less likely to go to war and have a better record of fighting corruption. More fundamentally, democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures”. 

Perhaps those are reasons why many people say they prefer democracy, but it is far from clear that democracy causes all those things to happen. The assertion that “democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures” seems to me to be more a statement of what should happen rather than what actually happens.

Democracy requires that candidates for election have sufficient freedom in presenting their views to enable electors to choose between them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that democracy “lets people speak their minds”. For example, just last year, the former Australian government was proposing to introduce laws that would make it illegal to, among other things, “offend or insult” people on the basis of their “political opinions”. People elected to power via democratic processes do not always support free speech.

Similarly, the idea that democracy lets people “shape their own and their children’s futures” seems to me to be more a statement of what should happen, than a statement of what actually happens. Governments have become far more involved in shaping the lives of people since the advent of democracy. The governments that are attempting to shape the lives of people through their wars on drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling and, more recently, fat and sugar, are democratic governments.

When we ask ourselves what has gone wrong with democracy, we tend to begin by convincing ourselves that democracy is good for us because all other systems would be worse. We then proceed to worry that the self-destructive tendencies of democracy are becoming more evident and to consider how democracy can be constrained in order to be preserved. The message is important, but is complicated.

We might have more hope of moving toward a better system of democratic government if we were to adopt a more straight forward approach. What I have in mind is that we should approach the issues by considering the characteristics of good government and how our existing systems of government would need to be modified to have those characteristics to a greater extent.

At this point I might be well advised to elaborate what I mean by good government and then spend the next few years researching what others have written about the characteristics of good systems of government. But the essential characteristics of a good system of government seem fairly obvious. It would:
  • defend the lives and property of individuals and their right to live as they please, provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others;
  • ensure widespread opportunities for individuals to flourish by using their personal resources for purposes they value in mutually beneficial endeavours with others; and
  •  provide a mechanism for peaceful removal and replacement of governments that do not defend individual rights and ensure widespread opportunities for individual human flourishing.

So, how can we move further toward a system of government that has those characteristics?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

How do peaceful societies come about?

Although this blog is still taking a long holiday, I want to write about this issue now because I have been turning it over in the back of my mind for a few months.  

A good place to start might be to think of a poor country, or even a developing country, with a law and order problem. In this country, the people who can afford to do so live behind high fences and they are protected by security guards. The rest of the population are highly vulnerable to criminal activity of many kinds. Crime has a dampening effect on all forms of commercial activity that cannot be adequately protected by high fences and security guards. For example, any economic activity involving road transport to and from the rural areas, where most people live, is constrained by the high risk of banditry by people living near the roads.

So, what should be done about this? The main options that seem to come up in public discussion are:
  1.  Promote higher ethical standards by encouraging increased religious observance.
  2. Deter crime by ensuring that criminals are more frequently caught and punished.
  3. Make a life of crime a less attractive option to potential criminals by promoting more widespread economic opportunity.

I don’t hold much hope for the first option. Church attendance is at record levels in the particular country that I am thinking of.  My reading of history also suggests to me that religion is not enough to promote peacefulness.

In my discussion of “the drivers of peacefulness” in Free to Flourish I wrote:
“Adherents of the major world religions all subscribe to a vision of ethical behaviour corresponding to the golden rule of treating others as one would like to be treated. It would seem reasonable to expect that followers of those religions would always have obtained satisfaction from acting in accordance with this ideal. Yet, this was not sufficient to bring about an outbreak of peacefulness outside of religious orders.
Why not? We would need a model of moral progress to answer that question. Such a model would specify that the way people behave and how they perceive themselves depends on the incentives in the environment in which they live. If they believe that people outside their family group or tribe are not to be trusted, they will not risk attempting to engage with them in cooperative ventures or mutually beneficial exchange. If they believe that the incentives in their environment favour predatory behaviour, they will tend to adopt a sense of personal identity that enables them to feel comfortable with such behaviour despite paying lip service to higher ideals.
A model of moral progress would recognise that the emergence of governments that showed greater respect for the rights of citizens ameliorated a major threat to life and property. It would recognise the importance of the emergence of mechanisms for contract enforcement in both promoting trustworthy behaviour and encouraging greater trust of strangers. This, in turn, enabled mutually beneficial exchange involving larger groups of people.”

That way of thinking emphasizes that the peacefulness of societies depends to a large extent on the attitudes of individuals and groups. Perceptions of incentives are important not just in affecting the expected rewards from crime relative to alternative pursuits, but also in influencing the perceptions that individuals have of themselves. 

So, we should be thinking about the impact that interventions might have on attitudes rather than just about altering incentives. Devoting more resources to fighting crime will not necessarily have much impact if perpetrators perceive themselves to be justified in their actions and are supported by their relatives and the community groups to which they belong. A post I wrote last year about crime in Tipperary, Ireland, at the beginning of the 19th Century illustrates the problem.

However, that doesn’t answer the question of what can actually be done to help induce a transition from a situation in which incentives tend to favour predatory attitudes and behaviour to one in which incentives favour productive activity and market exchange. Some would argue that more government spending to expand the police force is the only practical option. After all, the societies that have made the transition to peacefulness in the past have achieved the desired outcome by investing vast amounts of public money in protecting property and deterring crime, haven’t they?

Actually, when we look at the history of Britain, peacefulness didn’t happen quite like that. In his book, The Enlightened Economy, Joel Mokyr points out that the Hobbesian view that order can only be achieved through firm third-party (i.e. government) enforcement was not true of Britain in the 18th Century. Large parts of Britain were virtual “lawless zones” and in others, legal practice often deviated considerably from the letter of the law. Enforcement was largely a private enterprise with the courts at best serving as an enforcer of last resort. There was no professional police force. Daily law enforcement was in the hands of amateurs and part-time parish constables. Justice had to rely to a large extent on volunteers, local informers, vigilante groups and private associations specializing in prosecution of felons. Private law enforcement remained of substantial importance until well into the 19th Century (pages 376-379).

Mokyr argues that the economic system functioned because the crucial economic actors – merchants, craftsmen, bankers, farmers etc. – were bound by moral codes of concern about their reputations. (I wrote more about that here, as well as in Free to Flourish.) There were credible signals that property rights would be protected, even though such signals were, for the most part, not sent via government law enforcement agencies.

So, what does all that mean for promoting law and order in poor countries in which economic development is being held back by criminal activities? The only insight I have to offer is that history seems to support the view that economic opportunity holds the key to peacefulness. 

If you want to start a virtuous cycle where peacefulness supports the growth of economic opportunity, you first need to have sufficient numbers of people who are able to perceive of opportunities to engage productively in mutually beneficial activities, and hence, to want to live in peace. If politicians want to help (a big ‘if’ I know) they should be thinking about what they can do to encourage the relatives of people with predatory tendencies to engage productively in mutually beneficial activities. For example, if the risk of banditry is making it too costly for farmers to send their produce to market then, perhaps, there might be some way to get the some of the relatives of the bandits productively engaged in the transport of goods, perhaps even as security guards.  Anyhow, that might be an option worth thinking about as an alternative to expanding police numbers. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Can kindness be motivated by self-interest?

This blog is taking a long holiday, but a few days ago I thought it might be a good idea to draw attention to some posts that I felt deserved more attention than they have received so far.

The first post I came across that I thought might belong in that category sought to answer the question: How should we encourage kindness?

However, when I read it again, I was not quite so impressed by what I had written.

The line of argument was broadly as follows:

·         Kindness is the greatest of all virtues.
·         There is evidence that kindness is good for those who practice it as well as for those who benefit from the kindness of others.
·         Kindness should also be encouraged because benefits of kindness spread beyond those immediately involved in kindly acts. Kind people tend to be trustworthy and trust facilitates mutually beneficial interactions, even among strangers. (In economic terms, kindness is the opposite of opportunism. It reduces the transactions costs of engaging in economic activities and enables people to enjoy the benefits of specialization and trade to a greater extent that would otherwise be possible.)
·         It isn’t clear whether kindness is increasing or decreasing in western societies. There is evidence of a secular trend toward less violence, but also some evidence of increased incivility in workplaces.
·         It is doubtful whether greater kindness can be encouraged by imposing more rules of conduct. The apparent increase in incivility in workplaces has occurred at a time when there has been increased regulation to enforce politically correct behaviour.
·         The best way to encourage kindness is to make people more aware that kindness is good for those who practice it.

My problem is that the bottom line seems too glib.

How would you respond if someone you had just met told you, “I know I am an arsehole”?  When I met such a person a month or so ago, it didn’t cross my mind to tell him that it was in his interests to be kind because kindness benefits the people who practice it. A person who sees himself as an arsehole is not likely to be receptive to such a message. I just suggested that he was not doing himself any favours by having such a low opinion of himself. He seemed to listen. Perhaps if he heard the message more often it might have some impact on his behaviour. If we want to influence the behaviour of such people it may be more effective to speak to their better selves than to try to appeal to their self-interest in reaping the benefits of kindly behaviour. (There is, of course, also the possibility that such people can be influenced by pointing out any penalties they might suffer as a result of bad behaviour.)

The other reason why I think my bottom line was too glib is that I doubt that the claimed beneficial impacts of acts of kindness apply when a person is just going through the motions of appearing to be kind. I suspect that in order to benefit you need to have your heart in it. Nevertheless, we all have to begin somewhere.  We may never change if we wait for our hearts to lead us. As Aristotle said, people acquire virtues by putting them into action. We become kinder by practicing kindness.  

To answer the question posed at the beginning, I think kindness can be motivated by self-interest if that is understood as the interest every individual has has in becoming more like the person that he or she would like to be. The main problem is that too few people ever give serious serious consideration to the question of what kind of person they would like to become.