Couldn’t have put it better myself: given how little we know, we could do with less certainty

As we lurch from one disaster to another, I think Mark Thoma quoting Chris Blattman, hopping into David Brooks gets it exactly right.

Chris Blattman:

David Brooks saves the world in 1000 words, by Chris Blattman:

Haiti, like most of the worlds poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust

Were all supposed to politely respect each others cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

its time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Childrens Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they dont understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they dont care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

That is David Brooks selectively quoting the development literature.

His confidence makes me uncomfortable. To paraphrase, unkindly: These Haitians need to be more like hardworking, thrifty Americans. Weve spent five decades learning that everything we thought would work in aid did not. Clearly its time to get tough. I read about some people who made this work in Harlem, so its obviously the answer for Haitians, whom through newspaper reading, I have deduced are also resistant to progress.

Dont misunderstand me: Brooks could be right. In fact, Im starting one randomized control trial to test the idea. Im a little further from propounding it as Gods honest truth on the pages of the Times.

Sometimes the  problem with big development solutions is they spring from hubris and certitude rather than caution and humility. …

Im slightly terrified now that Bill Clinton, special envoy to Haiti, has said David Brooks is his leading intellectual light.

Intrusive Paternalism worked so well in Iraq and other places, especially when combined with forced free market solutions introduced with no supporting institutional structure, and without consideration of local culture, history, or social relationships, that I guess conservatives like Brooks just can’t wait to try it again.

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11 years ago

Yeah I saw this too and couldn’t have agreed with Blattman more.

It’s funny though – David Brooks has always seemed quite reflective/moderate to me. Seems v out of character. Shouldn’t discount that the emotion of what’s happened has got to him.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
11 years ago

Brooks, as he acknowledges in his column, is repeating Lawrence E. Harrison’s account of culture and development.

Here’s Harrison from the Washington Post:

In the late 1970s, I worked in Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. In 1804, when Haiti became independent, it was vastly richer and more powerful than the Spanish colony to the east. But today Haiti is by far the poorest country in the hemisphere — in 2003, its per capita income was $1,740, compared with $6,820 for the Dominican Republic, according to U.N. estimates. Adult literacy was 51 percent in Haiti, vs. 88 percent in the Dominican Republic. And while Dominicans have experienced substantial democratic continuity in the past 40 years, authoritarianism has been the norm for Haiti.

The Dominican Republic’s evolution has been typical of Latin America, while Haiti’s has been typical of Africa. Why the difference? The dominant religion in Haiti is voodoo, which nurtures mistrust and irrationality. Its roots are in the Dahomey region of West Africa — what is today Benin. The levels of income, child malnutrition, child mortality, life expectancy and literacy are virtually identical today in Haiti and Benin.

Some religions and cultures do better than others at promoting personal responsibility, education, entrepreneurship and trust — all values that shape political and economic development. When it comes to democracy, prosperity and rule of law, Protestant societies — above all, the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — have generally done better than Catholic nations, particularly those of Latin America. Confucian societies such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and now China have produced transforming economic growth. Islamic countries, even those with oil, have not.

The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once stated: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

Brooks’ intellectual roots lie in the first generation neoconservatism of thinkers like Moynihan. And that takes us back to the culture of poverty debate of the 50s and 60s.

The culture of poverty idea began on the left but proved a convenient justification for conservative policies. For example, with a bit of bending, you can attribute the success of Nordic countries to their protestant value system rather than to things like investments in early childhood education and care and other welfare state institutions (things that might lead to higher taxes).

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
11 years ago

As I made clear before, I have real huge problems attributing differences in growth to differing religious values. After all, it’s only a few decades since it was conventional wisdom that Confucianism explicit anti-commericalism and rigid heirarchy and love of bureaucracy were blamed for the the poverty of the east.

And how would one expect, seeing only the values of religions like Buddhism and Christianity that beliefs so explicitly other worldly could drive people to create such vasts amounts of material wealth. Afterall, this world is not the true one, the kingdom is elsewhere and the whole camel/eye of needle problem. There’s a reason both have produced such enduring ascetic and monastic traditions.

The only real conclusion is that religion is subservient to other values and endlessly flexible to other ends.

It’s an infuriating argument when people make it less because of the cultural chauvinism, but the sheer intellectual laziness of it.

I like Blattman’s blog a great deal because he never has the answers. There is no wiser person than they who know what they don’t know.

11 years ago

You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to figure what is wrong with Haiti. I mean if there was a checklist covering all the signs of poor governance, Haiti would tick so many boxes you’d be tempted to think they were cheating.

Founded on slavery… TICK

Massive death rate amongst indigenous natives… TICK

Forced religious conversion… YUP GOT THAT ONE

History of piracy and lawlessness… COVERED

Low-tech economy driven by agricultural labor… TICK

Multiple racial groups with continuous inter-racial tensions… GOT IT

Ridiculous number of military coups… TICK

Huge wealth disparity between elite landowners and peasants… OF COURSE

Active interference by major world powers… ALWAYS

Drug trade… DOESN’T EVERYONE ?

Low literacy levels and poor mass education… TICK

Almost bottom in “corruption perception index”… GOT THAT

Regular rule by terror tactics… IT’S A LIVING

Very little trust in the justice system… TICK

Now, I’ll add that voodoo is a religion primarily based around poisoning people so probably not the most progressive theology, but hardly outstanding amongst the rest of what goes on. In some ways Haiti is similar to Zimbabwe in as much as they are very determined to get free of the influence of those more powerful but can’t quite get their act together to do anything useful with the freedom that they do have.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
11 years ago

Just out of interest I tried similar criteria against another country

History of Slavery – tick

Supression and marginalisation of indigenous peoples – tick

history of forced religious conversion and miliatry theocratic government – tick

State santioning and active enabling of piracy and drug trafficking – tick

Ethnic tensions leading to constant violence, rebellion and occasional civil/seccessionist wars – tick

Massive wealth disparities and concentrated ownership of land – tick

So I’m very pessimistic about the chances of industrialisation and development in the United Kingdom.

11 years ago

Hmmm, the UK certainly traded a lot of slaves, but the UK itself was not built on slavery.

True that the UK sanctioned drug traffic and piracy (doesn’t everyone?) but they shipped their opium to China and inflicted their piracy in far away places. I’m not arguing on the basis of moral superiority here, but the bad activities perpetrated by the UK generally happened to other people. Piracy at home was never tolerated. The rule of law within the UK may not have been exactly fair but it was predictable and stable. In the Caribbean, piracy and lawlessness was part of daily life right then and there, not something to read about from the other side of the earth.

Agreed there has been ethnic unrest in the UK going back centuries (e.g. the Irish problem) and the more recent tensions involving Pakistanis and other Islamic immigrants. However, if you want to look at the Duvalier years in Haiti and the deliberate use of racism as a political tool, along with government sanctioned gangs purging political opponents (large numbers of murders), you would be hard pressed to find similar activity in the UK (well perhaps you could compare the Reformation years but that was a long time ago, and at the time development was set back until it all settled down).

As for wealth disparities, I think that’s a bit unfair. There has always been a spread of wealth in the UK, with skilled tradespeople being valued for their skills and a spread of power amongst the various guilds and merchant classes. Of course there have been the very wealthy and the very poor as well. The problem in Haiti is that educated middle class professionals have regularly been in such fear of their lives that they emigrate. Again, I don’t believe that the UK was ever in a state where such people were fleeing for their lives.

Skilled tradespeople and middle class merchants and professionals are the fundamental elements that provide development and industrialisation. Let’s take an example of the John Harrison clocks and the prize offered for solving the problem of longitude. Can you seriously even imagine such a situation happening under any of the governments of Haiti?

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

I’m really not sure why this column is getting such a negative reaction. The micro-experiment he suggest seems sensible enough. It’s not that dissimilar to soft left early childhood and better schools flavour-of-the-month stuff here, which is largely setting up formal institutions to replicate what middle class parents do informally.

11 years ago

Richard, it occurs to me that if you want a simple, all purpose quantitative metric of the social institutions within any nation then just measure the percentage of the population that gets killed when political power changes hands. Or if you want an economic theory then put a dollar value on the loss of wealth (factoring in dead people, loss of production, property damage, etc) associated with change of political power.

This metric is usable in all societies (someone is always head-man one way or another) and adaptable to any economic system (presuming something can be used as a measure of wealth). Usually shifts in political power are easy to detect and well documented for historic purposes. Political murders are not as well documented but although one or two can be hidden, there are ways to make plausible estimates. You could also guess at production loss due to brain-drain, terror campaigns, hostile takeover, and such things — at least the fundamentals of the metric are well defined, even though some of the methodology to achieve that might be a bit open to interpretation.

It is also a scalable metric so it could work for corporate takeovers given suitable productivity estimates related to workers being fired, skills lost, etc. Admittedly, for corporate takeovers, long term productivity might go up if the takeover was well judged and strategic, but I’m just talking about the wealth losses directly associated with the takeover, not the knock-on stuff.

Richard Tsukamasa Green
Richard Tsukamasa Green(@richard-green)
11 years ago

I do remember seeing a measure of political violence in some work, but I can’t any successful results. I should track it down again.

Incidentally, I was being facetious with the UK example. The point (insofar that there was one) is that if the UK had not developed, it would be easy for us to find “obvious” reasons why. Uncontroversially, answers in development are very hard to come accross.

Jack Strocchi
Jack Strocchi
11 years ago

Nicholas Gruen said:

Intrusive Paternalism worked so well in Iraq and other places,

It is a travesty to call the invasion and occupation of Iraq an example of “intrusive paternalism” social policy. Paternalism, above all other forms of government, requires a strong legitimate central authority together with a more or less state-broken civil populace. No country on earth could be further away from that description than Iraq during the period of civil war, 2003-07.

The Bathists were “intrusive paternalists” alright, so its hard to pin the blame for Iraq’s post-Baathists troubles and travails on them or that philosophy of governance. And the US has very little control over Iraqi governance in the post-democratic period. Its really a multicultural system now. Good luck with that.

As for “paternalism’s” success in “other places” I dont know where Mr Gruen has been these past decade or so but “the end of welfare as we know it” and “three strikes and you are out” are working well enough, better than its opposite free-for-all liberalism. The same can be said for “mutual obligation” and the Intervention in Australia’s case.

Paternalism, in the case of national democracies, is about institutional authority enforcing accountability on several unruly individual autonomies within their jurisdiction. We need more of it, not less, as the riotous behaviour of the kleptocractic banks proves.

Nicholas Gruen said:

especially when combined with forced free market solutions introduced with no supporting institutional structure, and without consideration of local culture, history, or social relationships, that I guess conservatives like Brooks just cant wait to try it again.

I am guessing that this passage refers to the example of suitcase economists applying shock therapy to the CIS, or some such moves by the IMF towards countries like Indonesia verging on insolvency.

Let these policies be every bit as bad as Mr Gruen suggests. But they have nothing to do with paternalism. They are in fact forms of market liberalism.

More generally in world-history, the most common form of “intrusive paternalism” is imperialism. Perhaps some empires have done some regrettable things. But I can think of one or two that have made the world a better place.

Jack Strocchi
Jack Strocchi
11 years ago

Haiti of course is a good example of how national liberation can go wrong. Zimbabwe is another. Both countries instigated successful slave revolts, so to speak. And both revolts were miserable failures judged by any metric.

This sort of statement is taboo and cannot be mentioned in anything resembling polite company. But it remains true enough.

Both these countries would be better off if the original colonial masters were still running things. It turns out that the process of re-colonization was already underway with the US administration of Haiti. No doubt the Commonwealth will be called on to do the same thing with Zimbabwe.

So “intrusive paternalism” saves lives. But it makes a mockery of free-for-all liberalism. We shall just have to be brave about that.