Waylaid Dialectic

January 12, 2011

One of these things is not like the other – really

Filed under: Aid,Governance — terence @ 12:35 pm
Tags: ,

Chris Blattman excerpts the following snippit from James C Scott’s new book:

While the rhetoric of high imperialism could speak unselfconsciously of “civilizing” and “Christianizing” the nomadic heathen, such terms strike the modern ear as outdated and provincial, or as euphemisms for all manner of brutalities. And yet if one substitutes the nouns development, progress, and modernization, it is apparent that the project, under a new flag, is very much alive and well.

It’s probably misplaced to respond to a quote from a book you haven’t read but:

1. The sentiment that the quote appears to contain is really quite prevalent in some parts of the anti-development left (whether it’s Scott’s or not).


2. Hey, this is a blog. What did you expect.

Which means my point here isn’t really directed at Scott, who may have mustered tonnes of evidence, or may have qualified the quote, or limited it to certain circumstances. Instead, I’m simply here to say that the general claim that appears to be encapsulated in the quote is wrong.

Why? First, because development isn’t actually often a cover for imperialism. If it was, you wouldn’t see the positive long term human development trends that we do see in the vast majority of countries in recent decades.

Two, when states want to control peoples, the rhetoric they use, the rhetoric which appears most effective with their constituents is rhetoric of an external threat. Specifically ‘terrorist threat’.  That’s what Mugabe calls his opponents, for example.


On the subject of states and minorities the issue as I see it is this: once the unit of governance gets large (i.e. a state as opposed to a tribe or what have you) the potential for violent coercion of minority groups increases. On the other hand, larger units of governance bring with them dramatic benefits, if they behave, they facilitate trade, labour mobility, and social insurance. They also benefit from economies of scale in providing public goods and services.

Which means that development depends to a degree on forming reasonably large units of governments. Ones large enough to tyrannise minorities. What’s the solution?

Surely not returning to anarcho-tribal collectivism? Rather, I’d say that the best, or at least, least worst, solution is the one we’ve already got: governance systems with checks and balances — democracies and constitutional protections.


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