Race and Development



The always-excellent William Easterly has a great post entitled “How the British Invented ‘Development’ to Keep the Empire and Substitute for Racism.” After doing a lot of reading on the development of ideological justifications for slavery in the US and after searching through the papers of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, I think classical liberals and libertarians don’t pay enough attention to what our friends on the left have to say about race, racism, and how these affect institutions. In my Mises U lecture on “Common Objections to Capitalism,” I pointed out that history is smeared with racism, bigotry, and the unfortunate effects of tribalism. If you take two racist societies that are alike in every respect and give one society capitalist institutions while giving the other society statist institutions, I would expect the capitalist society to be less racist as time goes on.

What does this have to do with Easterly? Easterly discusses the late twentieth century fetish for “development” and argues that it has its roots in the racist assumptions of European imperialism (am I starting to sound like a Marxist?!). I would argue that its appeal is that it flatters the paternalist conceit of the man of system. I think this was particularly true in the technocratic intellectual environment of the 1940s and 1950s. Here is his punchline, lest Easterly be misunderstood:

Why does this history matter today? After all, the Empire fell apart much sooner than expected, and racism did diminish a lot over time. And I do NOT mean to imply guilt by association for development as imperialist and racist; there are many theories of development and many who work on development (including many from developing countries themselves) that have nothing to do with imperialism and racism.

But I think the origin of development as cover for imperialism and racism did have toxic legacies for some. First, it meant that the concept of development was determined to fit a propaganda imperative; it was NOT a breakthrough in thought by economists. Second, it followed that development from the beginning would stress the central role of Western aid to help the helpless natives (which shows up in the early development theories like the “poverty trap” and the “Big Push,” and the lack of interest in local entrepreneurs and market incentives). Third, the paternalism was so extreme at the beginning that it would last for a long time – I still think it is widespread today, especially after today’s comeback of the early development ideas in some parts of the aid system. And this history also seems strangely relevant with today’s “humanitarian” nouveau-imperialism to invade and fix “failed states” like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Membership in the development elites is far more diverse than in Lord Hailey’s time, but I fear that, to use Wolton’s words, “in the end, the elites still believe in their fundamental superiority.”

Cross-posted at Division of Labour.

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