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the case for intervention in the bottom billion

In the Bottom Billion, Paul Collier focused on the various traps that ensnare the poorest of societies, preventing the development that much of the world has enjoyed over the past thirty-odd years. Collier continues this line of thinking in War, Guns and Votes, where he emphasizes that the rise of democracy in the bottom billion nation-states does not help these societies, but rather often hurts: “competitive elections without restraints will frustrate internal cooperation, and presidential sovereignty will frustrate external cooperation.”  The political economics of the bottom billion dictator/president provide perverse incentives for state leaders, leaving little hope for the small, fragmented societies to enjoy the public goods of security and accountability.

Paul Collier, in War, Guns and Votes:

The overarching problem of the bottom billion is that the typical society is at the same time both too large and too small. It is too large in the sense that it is too diverse for cooperation to produce public goods. It is too small in the sense that it cannot reap the scale economies of the key public good, security.
Yet the indignant defense of sovereignty by the governments of the bottom billion, combined with the pusillanimity and indifference of leaders in high-income countries, radically constrains what international action can realistically achieve. The core proposal of this book is a strategy whereby a small intervention from the international community can harness the political violence internal to the societies of the bottom billion.

Even minimalist international intervention needs justification, and so I start with the case for the international supply of key public goods. I will focus on the two that are surely the most important: accountability and security.

There are two distinct reasons that these public goods should be supplied for the societies of the bottom billion internationally, rather than by their own national government. One is that such internal supply has not proved feasible: as you have seen, these societies are usually too fragmented to achieve the necessary collective action. Now I want to introduce a further reason. Because the typical country is so small, many of the externalities that are the basis for public goods cannot be internalized at that level because they spill over to the neighborhood.

The national income of Luxembourg, the joke tiny country of Europe, is around four times that of the average country of the bottom billion. Public goods that are national in most other societies are regional across the bottom billion. What can be supplied nationally in India would need to be supplied regionally among the plethora of states that make up West Africa or Central Asia.

To get specific, Central Africa has ideal geography for hydroelectric power: high rainfall over a massive area of high ground that collects into the River Congo. The descent to sea level could generate power for much of Africa and has been a development project for decades. The project has barely moved. The Democratic Republic of the Congo does not itself need all that power, while other countries are not willing to put themselves at the mercy of its president, or, for that matter, at the mercy of the presidents of any of the countries that power lines might have to traverse. The excess of national sovereignty possessed by these presidents has delivered power shortages across the region.

So small is ugly as far as public goods are concerned. Being small artificially limits the benefits of state provision, and this accentuates the lack of supply: the lower the payoff, the weaker the incentive to try.

Conventionally, the governments of the bottom billion are regarded as internationally powerless. They see themselves as victims of an international system that is stacked against them. Having struggled free from being colonies they see themselves as still entrapped by the bullying of more powerful nations. I think that this victim-bully imagery has been hugely dysfunctional. It has masked a radically different reality: individually, the governments of the bottom billion have too much sovereignty, not too little.

Before the people I most want to reach throw Wars, Guns, and Votes down in disgust, let me stress that I am not an apologist for colonialism, and I most certainly do not want to restore it in any shape or form. The problem I want to address is first and foremost a problem for the societies of the bottom billion themselves.

As we have seen, one missing public good is the accountability of government: in contrast to America, the governments of the bottom billion are not subject to many internal checks and balances. If the societies of the bottom billion cannot supply themselves with this public good, then it is better supplied internationally than not at all. The argument is analytically equivalent to the provision of a vaccine against malaria, another enormously valuable public good that is missing.

No society of the bottom billion is able to surmount the difficulties of providing this public good, and so we rightly look to international action to fill the gap. The public goods that benefit a region are sometimes best supplied outside the region. The difference between supplying the missing checks and balances and supplying a vaccine against malaria is national sovereignty. A vaccine against malaria developed through international public finance does not challenge national sovereignty; checks and balances developed through international public action do.

The international provision of accountability to the rule of law faces a standard objection: fairness. Why should some societies subject themselves to international rules if others won’t? To be specific, if America won’t subject itself to international rules, why should East Timor? This sentiment is understandable, but it is fundamentally wrong: it is part of the mentality that blocks serious thought, so let’s address it head on. I would indeed like to see America more supportive of international rules: there are some global public goods from which it would benefit and that even America cannot supply by itself. But quite clearly America’s citizens have radically less need to subject themselves to international rules: as a nation it is already supplied with restraints on government; as a large state it can already supply its own security and a huge range of other public goods.

In contrast, the citizens of East Timor need to rely on international rules because they are living in a territory that is structurally unable to meet these needs at the level of the state: at present thousands of them are cowering in refugee camps for fear of one another. The citizens of East Timor would, like Americans, benefit from the global public goods, but they can potentially gain far more than this from international rules. The purpose of sovereignty is not to be a virility symbol with which presidents strut on the world stage, it is part of the design of government: the criterion should be the needs of citizens.

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Filed under: General Welfare, World

One Response

  1. Alex Wynn says:

    Reminds me of Fareed Zackarias’ thesis re: illiberal democracy from a couple of years ago.

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