In the long run we’re all rich, free and peaceful

September 27, 2017
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It’s intellectually fashionable to be pessimistic, so let me push back with one of my occasional contrarian posts.  I’ll try to defend Fukuyama’s “End of History” hypothesis one more time.  Let’s start with peaceful:

1. A new study shows that the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), which outlawed war, has been highly effective. If you took history in high school, you might recall your teacher make fun of the touching naiveté associated with this utopian treaty.  Well it looks like Kellogg and Briand might get the last laugh.  First a bit of background.  The act was intended to change the rules of war.  Previously, countries were allowed to keep territory they conquered.  It was wars of aggression that were outlawed, not civil wars, not wars to prevent proliferation of WMD, not wars aimed at preventing genocide.  And wars of conquest (which were common throughout almost all of human history), have almost stopped happening (with Russia’s recent acquisition of the Crimea a notable exception, and even that was not particularly violent.)

So the world is getting more peaceful.

2.  It’s fashionable to say that freedom is a western concept, and Fukuyama’s prediction doesn’t apply to the rest of the world.  People point to China’s one child policy, or Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to let women drive.  I’m with Zhou En Lai; it’s too soon to say.  China recently abolished its one child policy, and today Saudi Arabia granted women the right to drive.  Maybe progress will stop and no more freedoms will be achieved in the non-Western world.  But my hunch is that modern technology will gradually make the world more liberal, by beaming images of successful western societies to everyone who has a smart phone.

So the world will get freer, even if the past decade has been a mixed bag.

3.  Here’s Tyler Cowen expressing pessimism about economic progress in poorer areas:

Increasingly, it seems that many parts of the Western world might never “catch up,” including Greece, southern Italy, much of the Balkans and much of Latin America, in addition to Puerto Rico. One of the pleasing features of the 1990s, in retrospect a delusion, was the notion that proper policy and good multilateral institutions would bring most of the world into consistent, steady-state growth at a higher rate than what the wealthier countries could manage.

I agree with most of what Tyler said about Puerto Rico, including his view that’s it’s future currently looks quite bleak.  But I find this paragraph to be far too pessimistic, and not even consistent with the data:

a.  Since 2000, the developing world has grown faster than the rich world.  Yes, that’s partly China, but it also includes lots of other populous Asian countries.  And Asia is perhaps 70% of the developing world.  Parts of Africa have also done pretty well since 2000.  But what makes this claim especially dubious is his reference to “proper policy”.  Most of the developing world rates far below the US in economic freedom (including freedom from corruption).  And those few countries that score high on the good policy scale (such as Chile and Estonia) have had a pretty good couple of decades.  If you want an African example, compare the growth rate of Botswana and Zimbabwe in recent decades.

b.  Yes, there are good reasons (including culture) to be pessimistic about the near term prospects of Greece and southern Italy.  But in 1970 there were good reasons (including culture) to be pessimistic about Ireland.  You might say that the Irish were always capable of much better, as evidenced by their success in America.  But Greeks and southern Italians have also been quite successful in America.  You might argue that corruption will keep Greece and southern Italy poor.  Yes, but for how long?  China is much more corrupt than Singapore, and much poorer.  But Singapore is also ethnically Chinese, and rooted out corruption through a determined effort of the government.  Corruption is not baked into the genes of the Chinese people.  Might the Chinese government be able to root out corruption? I don’t know, but the current leadership seems to be making an effort.

My point here is that “never” is a really long time.  If Tyler had said that Greece and southern Italy would remain relatively poor for another 80 years, I’d have no reason to disagree.  But another 80,000 years?  Who knows?

In the early 1940s the Kellogg-Briand Pact look like a pathetic failure.  Now it looks like a success.  Yesterday, it looked like Saudi women would remain oppressed.  Today there seems to be hope that they might start achieving more equality.  The arrow of history is still pointing toward more wealth, freedom and peace.  The real risk we face is not stagnation, but rather a sudden crisis that catches us unaware, like terrorists getting a WMD.

HT:  Scott Alexander, who also linked to this mind-boggling article:

The number one food exporter in the world is the United States. The number two food exporter in the world is the Netherlands, 1/270th the size and mostly urban.

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