After James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” and Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (which I admit I haven’t finished yet), I thought the natural follow up for a pluralist (but in some ways liberal at heart) attack on rationalism would be William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden”. I’m liking it so far, but some of the time I wish it were not so targeted to a popular audience (use jokes sparingly until you become a professional comedian, Prof. Easterly). I should also say that using a Capital Letters dichotomy for things you like/dislike sets off warning flags, even if I do think there is merit in his argument about Planners & Searchers.
I thought I should write a post on the book when I got to part 3, with the chapter “From Colonialism to Postmodern Imperialism”. There are a number of more important things to talk about, but a sentence that really stuck out to me was “Nor is the West the only source of imperial conquest – remember, say, the Aztecs, the Muslims, and the Mongols?”. Muslim is a religious designation, there is not a specific empire designated by “Muslim”. Wikipedia has a list of different empires which were of the Islamic religion. Also, the Incas would have probably been a better example than the Aztecs.
Easterly is best known these days as a critic of foreign aid, who now runs the Aid Watch blog. He’s unusual in that he sees it as a successor to the prior setup of colonialism which has continued many of the harmful relationships of decolonization. In that respect he sounds like Mencius Moldbug, with the difference being that Mencius actually approves of colonialism. Just as Paul Hewitt would be a better debate partner for Robin Hanson, I think Mencius would be better matched with Easterly. My estimation is that Easterly is of lower status than Paul Romer and also more willing to engage in an intellectual scrap, as evidenced by his arguments with Paul Collier and Jeff Sachs. A slight problem is that he’s based at NYU, a good distance from San Francisco.
You might think that of course Easterly opposes colonialism, everybody does, so he won’t have any good arguments prepared. To the contrary, I find that he does not merely assume its badness but sets out to provide evidence of it (primarily regarding economic growth, but other things as well) and even acknowledges where it resulted in improvements (just as he does for foreign aid). He doesn’t blame European intervention for everything and acknowledges some uncolonized areas left much to be desired, concluding “So absence of the White Man’s Burden did not ensure paradise. It just gave a better result on average than colonialism (and the better result is stastically distinguishable from colonies, despite the high variance of non-colonial outcomes).” Another study he brings up is one that I saved to my computer (before it crashed) because I thought it was so clever. He measured the squiggliness of borders to determine whether they were natural vs artificial and then found what outcomes correlated with relatively (straight-line) artificial borders.
The next chapter, which I haven’t read yet, discusses modern military intervention in failed states. You might think Uncle Sam monopolizes that shit-sandwich, but France apparently has been engaging in a good deal of it, mostly under the radar. If you don’t care about the third world but want more Easterly, note that he claims to have debunked Thomas Schelling’s model of neighborhood segregation, which Tim Harford likes so much.
Finally, on a vaguely related note, Tomasz Wegrzanowski cites Charles Kenny to argue that, despite its human cost, communism does not seem to be that bad for economic growth. I emailed Bryan Caplan since he created the online Museum of Communism and participated recently in a debate on Samuelson & Soviet convergence. He hasn’t responded yet, which could just mean my message was flagged as spam (which happened once to something Robin Hanson sent me). I hope posting it here will get Caplan to give his opinion on Kenny’s argument.