If you were an employer, and your employee was inefficient, incompetent, irresponsible and arrogant, you would fire him. There are other people who can do the job. If you were an employee, and the work was demeaning, the boss irascible, the pay miserly, you would quit. There are other jobs in other companies. If you were a customer, and the product was faulty, expensive, unreliable and badly designed, you would take your business elsewhere. There are other suppliers of goods and services. If you were in a partnership, and your partner was insulting, domineering, lazy and greedy, you would dissolve the partnership. We can associate with others. We all have the freedom to do the best we can and deserve our just deserts. But all bets are off when it comes to the government.
We take it as a given, almost a fact of nature like the seasons or the geography of continents, that different parts of the world enjoy different levels of prosperity. But there’s nothing “natural” about this since this is almost entirely within human control. The differences are stark, and at one end of the scale, heartbreaking. Consider the extremely rich first. Luxembourg has an annual per capita income of over $110,000, Norway over $100,000, Switzerland around $85,000. Those are small countries and outliers with perhaps little to tell us. But the US is large and has an annual per capita income of $53,000. Why is it so rich?
At the other end of the scale are Burundi and Malawi with only $200 or so annual per capita incomes. Why are they so poor? The richest countries are around 500 times richer in per capita terms than the poorest. What accounts for this inequality in incomes of countries? That question has engaged the attention of people for hundreds of years — starting with of course the great Scottish economist Adam Smith who inquired about “The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” in his famous 1776 book.
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, polymath, inventor, scientist, writer, diplomat, etc., etc., Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) observed that “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” An analogous statement about nations could be that all nations are born poor but it requires hard work to keep it in poverty. Not surprisingly that hard work is properly done by the politicians of poor countries. What’s surprising is the evident pride they appear to take in their dismal accomplishment. They obviously revel in the fact that the country is poor and proclaim it loudly for all to marvel at. A recent statement on twitter (image below) by the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs of India, retweeted over 1500 time no doubt approvingly by Indians, brought this to mind.
A couple of quotes related to violence and development.
“. . . all societies must deal with the problem of violence. In most developing countries, individuals and organizations actively use or threaten to use violence to gather wealth and resources, and violence has to be restrained for development to occur. In many societies the potential for violence is latent: organizations generally refrain from violence in most years, but occasionally find violence a useful tool for pursuing their ends. These societies live in the shadow of violence, and they account for most of human history and for most of today’s world population. Social arrangements deter the use of violence by creating incentives for powerful individuals to coordinate rather than fight.”
Source: In the Shadow of Violence: Politics, Economics, and the Problems of Development. Edited by Douglass C. North, et al. Cambridge Univ Press 2013.
“Political development occurs when people domesticate violence, transforming coercion from a means of predation into a productive resource. Coercion becomes productive when it is employed not to seize or to destroy wealth, but rather to safeguard and promote its creation.”
Source: Prosperity and Violence: The Political Economy of Development. Robert H. Bates. (2001)
A related post worth a read is “Of Kakistocracies, Principals and Agents.“
India is not doomed to be poor due to factors outside its control. Yet India is desperately, depressingly, chronically, and acutely poor. Why is that so and what is missing? I explore this question in this piece which is part 2 of a series I am writing for NitiCentral.com. Part 1 was “All Men are Created Equal but Nations are Not.”
The first lesson of development economics is that economic policies matter. Even if a country has everything going for it, lack of good policies condemn it to poverty. So it is easy to believe that if only good policies were known to those in power, economic development would necessarily follow. My good friend, the globe-trotting adventurer and consultant to capitalists, Utsav Mitra, brought that lesson to mind in a recent twitter exchange on my timeline. As a student of development, I have written a bit over the years on the matter and Utsav refers to it in a tweet which is embedded below.
Economic growth, development, progress—whatever you call it—is neither inevitable nor impossible. There are lots of examples of economies that continue to struggle with economic growth. And there are many examples of economies that have made rapid progress. What distinguishes the ones that that succeed from the ones that fail is economic policies. Again an operational definition of “good economic policies” will have to do: those that work. Economic policies that most efficiently harness the available resources are those that work. Economists usually categorize resources used in production -– into land, labor, and capital. Of these, human resources is the most critical. It follows then that policies that value human resources are the ones that work.