The Rationality of Underdevelopment

Dorothy L Sayers took a rational view of the world and stressed the causal nature of the universe. She wrote:

War is a judgement that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe…Never think that wars are irrational catastrophes: they happen when wrong ways of thinking and living bring about intolerable situations.

It is important to understand the nature of war — that it is a rational response to intolerable situations which have been brought about by wrong ways of thinking and living. Please bear with me for dwelling on that quote.

Wrong ways of thinking and living are the cause of intolerable situations, and the natural response is war. So if we wish to avoid war, we have to change the way we live and the way we think.

We are not talking about war here. We are primarily interested in development of economies. To understand development, we have to ask what prevents development from occuring spontaneously. Let’s call that the prime hurdle. Then we have to investigate further to determine what in our behavior creates that prime hurdle. Let’s call that the prime dysfunctional behavior. Finally, we need to understand the fault in our thinking which leads us to the dysfunctional behavior. Let’s call that the prime irrationality.

So at the root of it all — whether it is wars or poverty — I argue that there is irrationality. If we are dissatisfied with something and we wish to change that, we need to understand the thinking and find out what is wrong with that thinking and why. This is important because it is the most efficient way of solving the problem — going to the root and addressing the root.

One will have to wake up pretty early in the morning if one had to tackle a problem by painfully addressing each of its symptoms. Instead one could efficiently solve the problem by obliterating the root cause and be done with it.

Let’s go back yet again to Sayers: War is a judgement that overtakes societies when they have been living upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe. One cannot but come to grief if disregards reality for a sufficently long time. Underdevelopment, and its child — poverty — are the result of a prolonged disregard for the laws governing the universe. What we see around us are the children of poverty — the grandchildren of underdevelopment — hatred, ignorance, illiteracy, malnutrition, disease, and so on.

On Tuesday I wrote about the evils fairly common in rural areas. People treat other people (the concept of the ‘other’ changes with the context) with such inhumanity that one is left speechless. My belief is that behavior is a rational response to an intolerable situation. If one wishes to see an end to that sort of thing, one has to change the situation. To change the situation, we need to understand what causes it.

3 thoughts on “The Rationality of Underdevelopment

  1. I like your logical chain of thought and am looking forward to the progression of the same.

    Your mention of war (or revolution, I would add) being a result of people subjected to intolerable situations struck a chord. I’ve been thinking recently about a quote (which I came across in a speech by former CVC N. Vittal) of Alexis de Tocqueville who said, “The evils which are endured with patience as long as they are inevitable, seem intolerable as soon as a hope can be entertained of escaping them”.

    You seem to indicate that the evil behaviour in rural areas is a rational response to an intolerable situation for the oppresors, if I have understood you correctly. But looking at it from the other side, the oppressed who are subjected to the evils have tolerated them thus far – do you think there is any reason for the oppressed to now believe that stomaching the evils may be no more inevitable thereby making it intolerable for them? Especially now that there are opportunities through the media for the oppressed to see and hear about how things are different in the urban areas. Once the evils are perceived as intolerable, the oppressed may be willing to take risks, that they may have thought twice about earlier, to eliminate the intolerable. The question is – has the tipping point been reached yet?


  2. In response to K. Satyanarayan’s comment: the wrong ways of thinking and living pervades the entire ecosystem and creates the foundation upon which individually rational behavior aggregate to a socially suboptimal dysfunctional society. Within this socially suboptimal dysfunctional society, the two factions of oppressor and oppressed play their respective roles ‘rationally.’

    Numerous factors are interlinked through a complex web of interconnections. For the sake of analysis and comprehension, we may have to abstract some features from this complex system and try to understand how these limited features exist within the ecosystem. By focusing our attention only on these selected features, we begin to get a sense of the links that bind them. Subsequently, having understood that specific set of links, can we then expand our analysis and understanding to other part of the system.

    When I say that the situation is intolerable, I mean that it is so from a macro viewpoint, not from the viewpoint of the oppressors. For the oppressors, the system may be working as well as they can expect. For them, being at the top of an unfair hierarchy is fine. They do not have any particular desire to see the system changed. For the oppressed, being at the bottom is a fact they cannot change easily. They respond in what I call the ‘constrained rational’ way — this only reinforces the dysfunctional forces and they just dig themselves in a deeper hole.

    Let’s continue to discuss this in the next few days.


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