By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: William Easterly
Narrated by: Jonathan Yen
William Easterly argues that economic progress is a function of individual human rights; more than any past or current form of government. William Easterly is an economist with a theorist’s interest in history. He particularly vilifies autocratic and collective forms of government like North Korea, Ethiopia, and Cuba.
Easterly argues that former imperialist and colonial governments like France and Great Britain have impeded rather than accelerated economic growth of other countries. The suggestion is that, in the long arc of history, the poor are better off without expert’ intervention from today’s World Bank, yesterday’s League of Nations, or other outside organizational experts. Easterly argues that supporting indigenous leaders that focus on individual human rights are the best catalyst for economic growth. He argues for Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” as the best guarantee for economic growth.
Easterly argues that indigenous populations with individual human rights will originate, initiate, and experiment with more and better ideas to unleash creative solutions for economic growth. Easterly argues that, in the long run, more and better ideas will be generated because indigenous populations will have skin-in-the-game and a more intimate understanding of local conditions. Easterly believes local governments that guarantee individual human rights will naturally produce winners and losers that will more quickly lead nations to economic prosperity.
Easterly’s argument is unconvincing on several levels. One, as John Maynard Keynes, said “In the long run we are all dead.” The long arc of history includes many empires that hugely improved economies of their nations while denying individual human rights; e.g. Italy in the days of the Roman’ emperors, Spain in the age of Charlemagne, France in the 16th Century, Great Britain in the days of rampant colonization, and the United States in its western expansion. And, Bashar al- Assad and use of chemical weapons to kill his own people. All of these countries exhibited high levels of autocracy, at different times, in their economic ascension.
Easterly uses history to argue that individual human rights advance economies better than any other political movement. He proffers an idealized theory of individual rights, rights that have been infringed upon by every country of the world, including the United States. It is impossible to convince one that something like the industrial revolution would have benefited the poor more through a guarantee of individual rights. The only way of knowing would be to reinvent history and measure the resulting difference. In a sense, Easterly attempts that with examples of today’s struggling economies.
Easterly creates a straw-man’ example by suggesting that if an American’ town had all its residents murdered to create a forest that benefited society, America would be up in arms. That is probably true today, but America has murdered Indian and black villagers in their communities during western expansion and industrial growth.
In the next paragraph, he writes of a British conglomerate that partners with Ghana to destroy a village to build a forest. The facts of the Ghanaian’ atrocity may be perfectly correct but how does one guarantee individual rights when there is no social structure to enforce the guarantee.
Easterly ignores the reality of human nature; i.e. human nature is good and bad, regardless of the government under which humans live. The Ghana’ example is not objectively cited by Easterly; i.e. it is a sophist argument to justify a speculative economic theory.
True enough, in an autocratic society, following an expert’s mistaken recommendation may be harmful because of quicker implementation but there is a reaction within the arc of history. It is called revolution. Regimes do fall and new leaders replace the fallen. To know whether economic improvement would have been faster or better with government’ emphasis on individual human rights is a road not taken. To suggest there are examples in history to prove that supposition is questionable. Decision is often based on human greed whether one is protected by individual human rights or not.
Easterly vilifies Bill and Linda Gates Foundation for attempting to reduce infant mortality in Ethiopia through intervention because there is no credible way to measure reduced infant deaths. Easterly suggests statistics are irrelevant because there is no accurate base line from which to begin measurement. The inference is that the Foundation should not have tried to reduce infant mortality. Easterly leaves one thinking it would be better for the Foundation to withdraw and hope the Ethiopian government would improve individual human rights. Easterly infers infant mortality will be reduced by guaranteeing individual human rights. Easterly seems to believe do-good’ foundations (experts) only distort and delay economic growth.
Easterly infers Ethiopian’ infant mortality would be better served by promotion of individual human rights because individual human rights unleash human ingenuity and, in the arc of time, will reduce premature infant deaths. This is the same sophistry that allows Americans to ignore homelessness in their own communities. Homelessness is rationalized as an expression of one’s individual human right. As the argument goes in the United States, the poor
will always be disadvantaged because they deserve it. Individual rights have always been fungible and fudged by leaders that are subject to the weakness of being human beings.
Easterly gives the example of the controversial tenure of Robert Moses in New York City as the great land planner. Moses, the expert on New York’s re-development in the early to middle 1900s, is famously, and somewhat disparagingly, written about by Robert Caro.
Easterly notes that a New York neighborhood is nearly destroyed by Moses’ expert judgment. As Easterly’s story goes, a neighborhood’s expression of individual human rights, thwarts Moses’ plan to replace a neighborhood. History of the neighborhood shows that value became hugely improved because it was not razed to the ground and replaced with a park. What Easterly fails to show is how many open spaces were created in New York as a result of Moses’ expert planning or how the transportation system was improved by bridges built at the direction of Robert Moses. Is New York better or worse as a result of Moses’ expertise? It depends on Easterly’s arc of history. Easterly’s inferred judgment is that New York would be better today if no one had listened to Moses’ expert advice.
Easterly’s arguments are not unfounded. Individual rights are important and do make a difference in the world. He recounts the fears expressed by Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom”, that reflect on the rise of autocracy and the denial of individual human rights that lead to atrocities like the holocaust.
Unquestionably, there is a real and historically proven threat in the denial of individual human rights.
It is more plausible to agree with Easterly in modern times; i.e. individual human rights are more likely delivered, or at least exposed, to the public in the digital age than in the past. The advent of the internet increases the potential for progress through individual human rights because violation of rights become more widely known. Individual rights violation is more likely to be publicly reviled and action more likely taken by indigenous populations. Of course, one wonders about the benefit of mob action. When does an individual human’ right become distorted by mob action. There is a 1789 French experience that offers some insight. And who determines what individual human rights are in Arab Spring countries, or North Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq?
Easterly, like all human beings, views the past through eyes of the present. Denying individual rights remains a threat to society but definition and understanding of those rights may be more universally appreciated today because of technology, and the internet. Easterly may be on the right track for societal improvement but his arguments, based on history, are weak. Economies have grown dramatically in the past; despite the denial of individual human rights (the rise of the U.S.S.R. after WWII for example). Sadly, as Easterly knows, economic growth does not raise all boats, whether prescribed by experts or a free indigenous population.
Guaranteeing individual human rights is not a magic bullet for reducing poverty or improving the lot of the poor. Bullets only murder individual rights.
The tyranny of autocrats, experts, and dictators will continue. The poor’s only voice is through consensus building movements like Occupy Wall Street. Movements like Occupy Wall Street are only at their beginning. Public understanding and demand for individual rights is growing because of the internet, but social change remains part of the long arc of history. As in Plato’s time, knowing the good is part of the difficulty of being the good.