The Principled Agent

Thoughts on development economics and impact measurement

Political liberalism by fire

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Chris Blattman notes that modern African states differ from the historical precedents of Asia and Europe in that “European and Asian states provided police, military control, and access to justice (of a sort) long before they provided schools, clinics and electricity.” Rather than focusing on law and order, African development efforts have focused on clinics, microfinance — “there is no Millennium Development Goal for access to a court system, or freedom from crime and violence.”

I would add that the political liberalization that took place in Europe depended on the central government’s increasing dependence on productive financial and commercial activity to increase its revenue beyond the limits of extraction in order to compete in interstate conflict. In the competitions between the Spanish and Dutch, the French and the English, natural selection favored the more adept financiers and traders. A European head of state had considerably more to lose than his modern counterparts in turning commercial elites into sniveling sycophants. Increasingly liberal law and order emerged from the crown’s dependence on the elites (and to a lesser extent the masses) for his continued reign and even survival.

Imagine if instead, international organizations poured money into the coffers of these heads of state under the auspices of helping them develop their still nascent economies. Part of the money would surely finance their military, and the rest would lower the value of external financing: all of the money would effectively reduce the crown’s dependence on the rest of society and destroy his incentive to liberalize his state, politically or economically.

Blattman considers the possibility that “the international system and aid can exacerbate the [law and order] problem by pushing the state to build a public education and health system ahead of more core state functions.” Perhaps the international system can catalyze law and order from above (I welcome the experimentation in local political and economic empowerment), but I would definitely try to avoid exacerbating the problem through national budget support that crowds out the state’s dependency on its people for its existence. As I noted in development without aid in Somaliland, good things sometimes happen when the international community just gets out of the way.


Written by Chris Prottas

March 25, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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