Well, this blog has only been existence for about a week or so, and no sooner have I started it, but I’m putting it on hiatus for two weeks. I’m off to Nicaragua for the next two weeks with my colleague George Abaunza for the experiential learning component of his Sociology 305 course, “Global Problems and Perceptions of Capitalism.” Here’s the course description:
This course will introduce students to the socio-cultural, historical and political analysis of the spread of capitalism, its consequences and interpretations among different cultures. Issues such as global poverty, ethnic conflicts, economic development, disease, environment and social protests will be examined within the context of global problems and the challenges leading to possible solutions.
Sounds pretty left-wing to me. The main text for the class is Thomas O’Brien’s The Century of U.S. Capitalism in Latin America. The trip is sponsored by Felician College in association with the American Nicaragua Foundation; ten Felician undergraduates (and a few others) will be coming along for the ride. I suppose I’ll be functioning partly as tourist, partly as chaperone, and partly as Randian corrective to George’s anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, Marxo-Sandinista juggernaut. It’s my first trip south of the U.S. border, the only exception being a trip to Puerto Rico I took with my family when I was about fifteen. (And I’ve repeatedly been told that Puerto Rico isn’t an exception.) I’ll try to blog from Managua if I can, but I’m not sure what kind of Internet access or free time I’ll have, so for now I’m going to call it a two-week blogging hiatus.
I’m joking a bit about “Randian corrective,” by the way, despite my total lack of sympathy for Marxism. Though I think Rand had some useful things to say about capitalism, I don’t think she had anything particularly illuminating to say about poverty in the developing world, or about how to make the transition from Third World poverty to an ideal form of capitalism. At best she gave some hints about how to think about the issues, but even there, I find much of what she says about the Third World wanting, misleading, and occasionally downright stupid. I haven’t yet read Hernando de Soto or Muhammad Yunus (both have been recommended to me), but I found a sensible general discussion of the issues in Johan Norberg’s In Defense of Capitalism, which I intend to bring with me to Nicaragua. Here’s an interesting passage from “The Case of Latin America” in that book:
It was not surprising that politicians in Chile, Brazil, and Argentina, among others, fell for the dependency [dependencia] school. Since the mid-19th century, the region had experienced an economic upturn through the export of a few central raw materials, such as coffee, bananas, sugar, cotton, and copper. But that still did not bring any broad-based national development, because the countries in question were typical societies of privilege. A small, protected landlord class owned enormous tracts of land, which were worked by legions of destitute unskilled workers, who were often paid in kind from goods from estates. This tiny elite reaped huge profits but did not invest them…..If new lands were needed, they were simply stolen from the native population.
And so on; Norberg details the mechanisms of exploitation and depredation for a few more sentences. Here’s the lesson:
What this example shows is that trade alone does not necessarily create dynamic development in an oppressive society. If a country is static and characterized by enormous privileges and discrimination, there is little chance of trade solving all these problems. For that to happen, the population must acquire liberty and the opportunity of economic participation. Land reforms to put an end to centuries of feudalism would have been needed, coupled with a commitment to education and free markets. (p. 164).
I’ve italicized what I regard as the key phrases or sentences in both passages. Development economics is not my area of expertise, but given what I do know (or think I know) about the relevant history, I find Norberg’s claims here highly plausible.
In particular, as a classical liberal with Lockean sympathies, three questions occur to me: (1) How did that “small, protected landlord class” come to acquire those enormous tracts of land? And how did their methods of acquisition measure up against the best Lockean account we have of initial appropriation and legitimate transfer? (2) What sorts of land reforms would have been required to correct for (or approximately correct for) the centuries of feudalism and/or theft that Norberg mentions? (3) How do we characterize an economic system that mimics capitalism in its outward features, but has been shaped by, and is path-dependent on, centuries of feudalism? (Actually, a fourth question: does Norberg’s reference to “education” in the last sentence refer to private education or a mix of private and public education?)
In my view, the preceding issues are better handled by Nozick’s defense of libertarianism in Anarchy, State, and Utopia than by Rand’s defense of capitalism in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal or Atlas Shrugged. It’s Nozick and not Rand who self-consciously leaves theoretical room for a form of rectificatory justice in his defense of the free market, and Nozick rather than Rand who has some useful related comments to make about history, “hypothetical histories,” and justice. (There are, I realize, exceptions to this rule. Rand has insightful things to say about the functioning of pseudo-capitalist “mixed economies,” but mostly geared to a specifically American context. Relatedly, I find Rand’s essays on NASA and Apollo 11 in The Voice of Reason a paradoxical combination of profound insight and contemptible cant.) I realize that rectificatory justice and land reform elicit derision in some quarters (both left- and right-wing, for different reasons), but Norberg’s comment seems to me so plausible that I find it hard to conceive a cure for Third World poverty that doesn’t somehow incorporate land reform as an essential element.
Anyway, more on all this, and on traffic ethics, when I get back in mid-August.
P.S., I was going to give this post a title involving some dumb variation on “No pasaran”—the old Sandinista/Spanish Civil War slogan—but I couldn’t figure out how to conjugate “I shall not blog” in Spanish, and it wasn’t all that funny anyway, so I left it. I don’t know how to do accent marks, either. Sometimes you just have to face the fact that despite five years of high school Spanish, one semester of college Spanish, and six months of tutoring, you’re ultimately still a gringo.