Waylaid Dialectic

May 20, 2010

Kindness, Cruelty and the Better Polity Through Suffering Theory

Filed under: Aid,Governance,Migration,Social Justice — terence @ 10:57 am
Tags: , , , ,

Call it ‘Better Polity Through Suffering Theory’. It’s nasty, common and it comes in various forms. On the far left there are those who dismiss the market mitigating effects of social democracy as impediments to real political transformation. People who argue that if we would just stop providing the masses with some security they will eventually rebel, leading to left wing utopia.

The right has it’s own versions. Witness Helen Hughes and Gaurav Sodhi [PDF] arguing against a seasonal migration scheme for Pacific Island workers because it will reduce the impetus for political reform back home. Similarly, opponents of aid sometimes claim that the negative shock of aid withdrawal will lead to pressure for positive political reform.

The common thread in such ‘theories’ (both from left and right) is that you have to be cruel to be kind: deny people benefits now and you will provide the incentive for positive change.

On a society-wide scale this has never struck me as convincing for the simple reason that there are not many examples of countries that have weathered large shocks and become radically better as a result. On the other hand there are plenty of examples of countries that have weathered large shocks either by falling apart or by reverting to authoritarian hyper-nationalism. It’s much easier to break a country (or a community for that matter) than it is to build one. For this reason I’m very wary of any reforms that promise long term gains as a result of short term pain and I’m particularly sceptical of claims that see the pain itself as a tool.

And so, the following really doesn’t surprise me; although I hope it might cause proponents of Better Polity Through Suffering Theory to reconsider their own arguments for a bit.

From VoxEU:

While estimates vary between specifications, we find that roughly a one percentage point decline in growth translates into a one percentage point higher vote share of right-wing or nationalist parties.

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