Monday, April 14, 2014

Can the industrial revolution be explained by the "cool-water condition"?

In my last post I discussed how Christian Welzel’s book, Freedom Rising has reinforced me in the view that the story of human flourishing is all about emancipation. As people obtain more action resources (wealth, intellectual skills and opportunities to connect with others) they tend to adopt emancipative values and to engage in collective action to attain more civic entitlements. Life provides greater opportunities for most people as this process occurs.

Before proceeding further it may be worth noting that there is evidence that poor people in low-income countries place value on economic freedom and the right to express their opinions e.g. the survey evidence by Deepa Narayan, Lant Pritchett and Soumya Kapoor discussed by William Easterly in The Tyranny of Experts, p 150 (which was reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago). It is hardly surprising that poor people do not like governments stealing their property or impeding their endeavours to earn more income and then telling them to shut up when they complain. Humans don’t have to become wealthy before they perceive that they have natural rights that should be respected.

In this post I consider whether or not Freedom Rising provides a satisfactory explanation of the conditions that got the ball rolling toward improved civic entitlements by enabling people to achieve higher material living standards, first in western Europe and then in many other parts of the world. It is important to have an understanding of the factors that led to the industrial revolution in order to consider whether a reversal of those factors could cause the processes of emancipation and human flourishing to be interrupted.

Professor Welzel identifies an environmental condition, the cool-water (CW) condition, as the source of the expansion in action resources associated with the industrial revolution. The CW condition is a combination of moderately cold climates, rainfall in all seasons, and permanently navigable waterways. These conditions are important because cool temperatures diminish infectious diseases, decelerate soil depletion and diminish physical exhaustion from work; continuity of rainfall improves land productivity and keeps water sources healthier; and permanently navigable waterways are a lubricant for economic exchange. Under the CW condition, soil is arable without irrigation, small farming households can work relatively large sections of land on their own, there is no need for extended families with many children to provide labour, and families do not have much need for community support. The CW condition enables people to have water autonomy – it prevents a central power from monopolising access to water as a means of controlling people.

 The development of urban markets occurred late in the CW societies, but once urban markets emerged in the CW societies of western Europe, the CW conditions made those societies more vibrant by generating “derivative autonomies, such as autonomy in marketing one’s skills, ideas and produce – the engine of technological advancement”.

It seems plausible to me that the CW conditions improved the odds that the industrial revolution would occur in western Europe rather than in some other part of the world at a comparable stage of technological development, e.g. China. My problem is that narrowing the source to western Europe provides, at best, a partial explanation. Why did the industrial revolution begin in north-western Europe rather than, for example, in south-western Europe?

If we want to answer that question then it seems to me that it is useful to look at economic history and, in particular, the works of people like Joel Mokyr and Deidre McCloskey. I suppose it is predictable that I might take that view since that is the approach taken in Chapter 7 of my book, Free to Flourish, and in posts on this blog (for example here and here).

Joel Mokyr has suggested that the industrial revolution should be referred to as the industrial enlightenment. He argued in The Enlightened Economy that a sustained period of industrial innovation was made possible because the “legitimisation of systematic experiments carried over to the realm of technology”.

Deidre McCloskey presented her views about the importance of value change as follows:
In particular, three centuries ago in places like Holland and England the talk and thought about the middle class began to alter. Ordinary conversation about innovation and markets became more approving. The high theorists were emboldened to rethink their prejudice against the bourgeoisie, a prejudice by then millennia old. … In northwestern Europe around 1700 the general opinion shifted in favour of the bourgeoisie and especially in favour of its marketing and innovating. … People stopped sneering at market innovativeness and other bourgeois virtues …”.

In Free to Flourish I concluded my discussion of drivers of opportunity in the following terms:
“This account of the historical drivers of opportunity underlines the importance of economic freedom in determining the advance of technology and innovation. Yet, the ongoing expansion of opportunities depends on much more than just formal rules and economic incentives. It also depends importantly on beliefs, ideologies and social norms.
One implication is that inter-personal trust and supportive public attitudes toward commerce need to be recognised as important factors influencing the growth of opportunities. Another implication is that the economic freedom necessary for ongoing growth of opportunities cannot be sustained unless prevailing beliefs, ideologies and norms are supportive.

The relationship between prevailing values and economic freedom seems to me to be a topic worth exploring further. It would be interesting to see to what extent emancipative values are correlated with values that support economic freedom. Are emancipative values protective of economic freedom, or is there reason to be concerned that such values are leading to increased pressure for “entitlements” that threaten economic freedom and hence the further growth of action resources?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Is the story of human flourishing all about emancipation

Yes, the story of human flourishing is all about emancipation. There is no other word that better describes what human flourishing is about.

At least that is the way it seems to me - and that view has been reinforced by reading Christian Welzel’s book, Freedom Rising, which is subtitled: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation.

The central idea in the book is that a desire for emancipation from external constraints is deeply rooted in human nature. It stems from the ability of humans to make conscious choices and to imagine a less constrained existence.

Emancipative values remain relatively dormant when people are poor, illiterate and isolated in local groups - they tend to place lower value on freedom of choice and more equal opportunity than on meeting their most basic needs.  Emancipative values emerge strongly as people acquire more action resources (wealth, intellectual skills and opportunities to connect with others). As people recognize the value of civic entitlements, such as the right to vote, they are inspired to take collective action to achieve them.

A society ascends a utility ladder of freedoms as its people obtain more action resources, adopt emancipative values and attain more civic entitlements. Life provides greater opportunities for most people as societies ascend this ladder. That is fundamentally what human flourishing is about in my view.

For individuals, ascending Welzel’s utility ladder of freedoms is much the same as ascending Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. However, Welzel’s emancipation theory has the advantage of being able to explain movement up the ladder in terms of forces of social evolution as well as desires that are deeply rooted in human nature.

Some implications of Welzel’s emancipation theory are capable of being tested empirically. The index of emancipative values used in the empirical work incorporates twelve items from the World Values Survey covering values relating to autonomy, choice, equality and voice (e.g. protecting freedom of speech and giving people more say in government and workplace decisions). Action resources are measured using various indexes of technology, education and national income. Civic entitlements are measured using Freedom House indicators and various other sources such as Vanhanen’s index of democratization.

The results of four tests of implications of Welzel’s emancipation theory are briefly reported below.

First, the empirical work confirms that emancipative values tend to become more widespread as action resources become more widespread. The results indicate that action resources (particularly intellectual resources) strengthen emancipative values at both the individual and societal level, but operate most strongly at the societal level. An individual’s intellectual resources strengthen her emancipative values more when she lives in a society in which intellectual resources are more widespread.

Second, the empirical results reported are consistent with the view that the sequence of change runs from emancipative values to civic entitlements rather than vice versa. Increases in emancipative values are explained by action resources rather than civic entitlements.

Third, evidence is presented that as emancipative values become more widely shared, the dominant life strategies in a population shift from an extrinsic focus on material circumstances to an intrinsic focus on emotional qualities. As emancipative values become more widely shared, people become less preoccupied with their financial situation and their satisfaction with life becomes more closely related to their emotional state (happiness).

Fourth, evidence is presented that a strong sense of general well-being becomes more common as intrinsic life strategies become prevalent. In other words, levels of life satisfaction tend to be higher when life satisfaction becomes more closely related to emotional state rather than material circumstances.
To sum up, Welzel’s emancipation theory seems to me to fit the facts pretty well in terms of what we know about the ways in which values have changed and civic entitlements have expanded as living standards have risen.

I will consider in my next post whether or not Freedom Rising provides a satisfactory explanation of the conditions that got the ball rolling by enabling people to achieve higher material living standards, first in Western Europe and then in many other parts of the world. That is not just an important historical question. It is also relevant in considering what factors could cause the processes of emancipation and human flourishing to be interrupted in future.

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?