A Missing Element From Development Studies

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There
was but one student of economic development who fully embraced the
solutions offered by the polity of the free society, the late Peter
Bauer. Amartya Sen, who wrote Development as Freedom (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2001) is a less avid supporter of this
view, mixing, as he has done, his championing of substantial free
markets with substantial dosages of government intervention. (By
"freedom" Sen tends to mean both "freedom from interference"
and "freedom to demand public help" via the political,
electoral process.)

The
bulk of the policy efforts of organizations such as the United Nations,
the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund rely, however,
on the belief, propounded by, among others, Columbia Economics Professor
Jeffrey Sachs, that often the first step on the road to economic
development in countries with inordinate degrees of poverty is substantial
donations from Western Countries. That may not always work but it
tends to be the beginning. Sachs also advocates, of course, various
conditions for making the donations, but he has considerable confidence
in their potency.

But
Sachs's
main point is this
: "The poorest countries can't make it
on their own. They will need help from the international community
to fight malnutrition and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis,
HIV and malaria. These diseases devastate economies and destabilize
societies. Disease control is therefore an economic and security
priority, as well as a humanitarian imperative." These ideas
lie behind the UN's
Millennium Project
, aimed at eradicating poverty around the
globe. Of course, help to impoverished regions can be useful for
a while. Yet, in nearly all the studies of this phenomenon of extreme
poverty, scholars tend, in the main, only to search out impersonal
factors that impede development, factors such as climate, terrain,
disease, ignorance, and so forth. What doesn't seem to find a place
in the thinking about world poverty is that people themselves sometimes
– even often – are responsible for how they fare. This
is clearly evident to us when we consider our own friends, neighbors,
acquaintances, so why should it not be so with people in far off
lands? (We even know people who are poor deliberately – ascetics
and ones who have taken a religious wow of poverty!)

Probably
we shy away from considering the poor's own complicity in their
poverty because we don't know those far away well enough and we
tend to avoid explanations that have a normative component. Instead,
scholars tend to rely on general models which invoke causal variables
of an impersonal kind, so as to explain poverty. Studies of the
phenomena, influenced very much by the tradition of value-free analysis
in the social sciences, do not make reference to the merits of the
beliefs and conduct of the individuals who experience the poverty.

Yet,
we do know that in some cultures certain practices and well entrenched
customs develop that stress objectives that are incompatible with
economic prosperity. So, for example, wherever people spend most
of their time striving to appease mystical deities, worshipping
their dead ancestors, seeking pure spiritual salvation or paying
respect to their elders, they will not pursue the kind of intense
productivity that is likely to get them out of poverty. Indeed,
in some cultures many people scoff at such an objective, deeming
it to be a distraction from more important matters. Yet they also
complain about the poverty! The concerns of people in many such
cultures, however, are likely to impede making headway with matters
such as their own good health, sufficient education, old age security,
and productive career development. In such cultures the effort to
erase poverty and all its side effects simply cannot be managed
via donations, loans, debt forgiveness and the like. Instead, the
people there will have to develop different patters of living, better
or more productive habits – or they will just have to go without.
Even simply establishing a strong free market infrastructure – private
property rights, protection of contracts, and so forth – will not
suffice.

One
place where this kind of thinking has made an appearance is in the
works of some travel writers, such as Jimmy Rogers (Adventure
Capitalist
[New York: Random House, 2003]) and Paul Theroux,
(Dark
Star Safari:
Overland
from Cairo to Cape Town

[Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003]). But making the point about cultural
and personal habits that thwart prosperity central to the analysis
of widespread world poverty is nearly forbidden in formal analyses,
by the ways most scholars study such matters, namely, within the
framework of value free social science and, more recently, multiculturalism
(according to which all culture are equally sound, valid, and may
not be criticized for their practices and customs). And this consigns
the resulting policy to repeated and frustrating failure and massive
wastefulness.

By
relying on the method of "donations" – actually, coerced
transfers – from wealthy societies the reality of the cause and
effect relationship that determines the eradication of poverty is
simply going to be hidden from view. Which is not helpful at all,
a bit like trying to support the maturation of young adults by always
bailing them out when they neglect their financial responsibilities.

February
3, 2004

Tibor
Machan [send
him mail
] holds
the Freedom Communications Professorship of Free Enterprise and
Business Ethics at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman
University, CA. A Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
University, he is author of 20+ books, most recently, Putting
Humans First: Why We Are Nature’s Favorite
.

Tibor
Machan Archives


        
        

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