Contra Easterly

This is in response to an essay contest on Econtalk responding to an interview with William Easterly – an economist who takes the feel-good position that the secret to development of poor nations is that they first adopt Western conceptions of personal rights. There is a 600 word limit.

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 mid-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”, referring to 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 grow 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 between autocracy and democracy 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 that have strong enough support to maintain a local 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?

condoleeza rice protestors

The Left against Reason (part 1)

Update: see FIRE’s Disinvitation Report

I’ve noticed a pattern of left-wing student groups using protest, intimidation, and official process to silence speech from people that disagree with them. Not all of these speakers can be described as “right-wing” and indeed few would describe themselves that way. What they hold in common is that their words or actions challenge some core plank of the progressive platform.

In its ideal form, protest is a mechanism used by the voiceless to indicate that some condition is growing unacceptable. But these students use protest to protect their minds and others from exposure to challenging thoughts and perspectives. This is not a noble goal, but the exact opposite of the values that university is supposed to foster.

American-style free speech is a human right beloved of underdogs – it exists in the US Constitution because many of the US founders were underdogs themselves, hailing from European religious minorities. It has been a long time since leftist groups were underdogs on university campuses (~12 billion years, give or take), and so they forget the value of free speech and the marketplace of ideas. The justification for open debate is the belief that good ideas will win out if we let everybody speak and society will benefit from it. I have some doubts, but it certainly can’t work that way if winning intellectual movements use their power and numbers to shut up potential competitors.

I’m going to use this space to record assaults by leftist groups on free speech and open debate. This is a partial list to which I will, sadly, be adding incidents over time as they happen. Tweet me at @iamcryptael or email at with additional information.

Let me explicitly state that my defense of free speech does not mean that I agree these speakers’ positions. It does indicate fear and disgust with what I see to be a growing intellectual orthodoxy and a closing of the American mind.

2009 UNC Chapel Hill, Tom Tancredo, (link) former U.S. Representative and Presidential candidate was shouted down by leftist protestors at an aborted speech at UNC Chapel Hill in North Carolina. He fled when a brick came through the window of the classroom where he was to speak. His offense: a strong stance in favor of restricting immigration. Choice quotes from protesters: “Free speech is laudable to the extent that hate speech isn’t part of it”, “You believe in white people’s superiority, you fuck!”

2013 Brown University, Ray Kelly (link) former NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was shouted down by “social justice activists” at Brown University in Rhode Island. Kelly was the longest-serving police commissioner in New York history, presiding over a fantastic decline in violent crime and murder. However, controversy arose over the police department’s stop-and-frisk tactics, which were denounced as “racial profiling”. The mayor and commissioner believe these tactics were justified on the basis of saving over 21,000 lives, mostly racial minorities. Choice quote from the coverage: “When the university did not cancel the event, ‘we decided to cancel it for them,’ Yi said. She called the protest ‘a powerful demonstration of free speech.’”

2014 Azusa Pacific University, Charles Murray (link), author and sociologist, uninvited from speaking following pressure from activist student groups.

2014 Rutgers University, Condoleeza Rice (link) former U.S. Secretary of State backed out from giving a commencement speech at Rutgers following student protests focused on the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, during which she served. Notable quotes from activists – “… if that presents the question of who possibly would qualify to speak at university commencements if all of our public figures have at some point been complicit in such actions, then the answer is simple: We need new public figures”

2014 Brandeis University, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (link), former member of the Dutch Parliament and women’s rights advocate was uninvited from speaking at Brandeis University after student protests.

2014 University College London, Nietzsche Club (link) the club was shut down by the student council before it could hold its first meeting, citing worries that a club studying right-wing philosophy could promote “fascism”. One of the students proposing the ban is President of the campus Marxist club. Marxism, being the quintessential philosophy of the far left, is never in danger of a ban. Quote from that student – “Far-right racists, sexists, and homophobes trying to organize on campus is a direct threat to the student body, and if our efforts at their disaffiliation have been at all successful in preventing them from organizing, then, yes, we are pleased.”

2014 Haverford College, Robert Birgenau (link), former UC Berkeley Chancellor cancelled a graduation speech after pressure from leftist student groups over complaints that his administration was too harsh with Occupy Wall Street protesters on Berkeley campus.

2014 Smith College, Christine Lagarde (link) former Director of the International Monetary Fund, withdrew from a commencement speech following protest from leftist student groups and faculty members.

(part 2 will deal with left-wing opposition to science that challenges Politically Correct beliefs)

Social Awakening

We are not a dying race, but one newly born. We comprehend ourselves for the first time. Foolishly, as children, we cast off the traditions of the past, knowing not what they are for, but eager with the fresh understanding that things could be otherwise. As we grow in wisdom, hopefully we will come back to wise things.

Our forefathers lived better but they could not know different. We do, and eventually we will choose that which gives life, strength, and capability, and we will outshine even their glory.