Development as Ideology

In a blog post yesterday, Duke economist Marc Bellemare responded to a recent contrarian piece on Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab about development trends in Africa. In the FP essay, Rick Rowden argued that recent claims of “Africa rising” ring hollow because the expansions of GDP and trade on which those claims are based aren’t driven by industrialization. Bellemare’s having none of it:

Not everyone agrees as to what “development” means, but for most economists, development means increased standards of living, which are best measured via economic statistics such as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, which may or may not reflect growth in the manufacturing and services sector of the economy.

I think Marc’s right that it’s more useful to define (human social) development in ways that are agnostic of specific causes, and that many professional economists nowadays think in those terms. At the same time, I get a little uneasy whenever development is linked tightly to GDP growth. Being acquainted with Marc, I suspect that his aim in doing so is simply to make empirical analysis of development more tractable. Still, it’s also true that there’s a powerful strain of technocratic thinking in some quarters of economics, one that prioritizes growth over all other things, and this myopia can sometimes become pernicious. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, for example, Armin Rosen accuses Jeffrey Sachs, a leading candidate for president of the World Bank not so long ago, of turning a blind eye toward the human-rights violations of authoritarian leaders in his pursuit of improved standards of living in Africa and elsewhere. The technocratic mindset was also on full display in a now-failed plan for charter cities in Honduras pushed by economist Paul Romer, and it’s a recurring theme in the columns of Thomas Friedman, whom development professionals love to hate.

In fact, even the driest definitions of human social development will inevitably carry a strong whiff of ideology, because the standards we set and the ways we measure progress toward them shape our behavior. Any definition of development implicitly or explicitly prioritizes some vision of the good life over others, and those visions generally entail some specific ideas about how to get there. The choice to include or expunge industrialization from a definition of “development,” for example, can influence what kinds of policies governments adopt in the pursuit or distribution of aid and loans tied to those metrics, and those policies can have vast consequences.

This is not a concern that’s unique to economics. In American political science, at least, when someone talks about “development,” they often mean to invoke a cluster of economic, social, and political changes that Seymour Martin Lipset called “modernization.” That cluster includes the improvements in standards of living that Bellemare emphasizes, but it also includes the industrialization Rowden spotlights, along with other things like urbanization, education, the spread of liberal values, and, perhaps most important, the emergence of a specific form of political democracy. In short, to “develop” was to follow the specific trail of socioeconomic transformation from primitivism into modernity that was blazed by Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that emphasis on mimicry has profoundly affected the ways the U.S. and Europe have tried to promote development.

When Lipset was writing, modernization theory’s chief intellectual and political competitor was Marxism. For Marxist theorists, Europe wasn’t a model to emulate; it was a bastion of economic inequality and plutocratic “democracy” that would eventually and inevitably collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions. Industrialization was a critical feature of capitalism’s late stages that enabled maximal exploitation of labor by capital. It was both bad and good—bad because of the depths of exploitation it entailed, but good because it meant the end was nigh.

Of course, it was the USSR and its European client regimes that actually collapsed, and in the two decades since, almost all of the purportedly communist states left in the world have abandoned their commitment to Marxism and adopted variations on the capitalist theme instead. That turn in international political economy has hardly killed class-conscious theory, however. Although the strict Hegelian version of Marxism is rarely seen nowadays, the concern with economic inequality and its political consequences remains a central theme in leftist politics. Flip this concern around, and we arrive at yet another definition of development. For many leftists today, development is about the spread of social justice, and the essence of social justice is not wealth but fairness. Industrialization, electoral democracy, and economic expansion are not things to be valued in themselves but means (or, in some cases, obstacles) to these deeper ends.

Economic growth, modernization, and social justice are probably the three most prominent conceptualizations of development today, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. You might not think of libertarianism as a theory of development, but in an important sense it is. For libertarians, the good life is understood as one in which individuals are free to do as they please within only the sparest of constraints. Here again, industry, democracy, and growth are all beside the point. Liberty is the goal, and social and political changes that expand freedom can be understood as developmental gains. This idea finds one of its sharpest expressions in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, which that organization deliberately presents as an alternative to conventional measures focused on specific outcomes like poverty and education rates.

All of which is a very long-winded reminder that no conceptualization of development can exist without an ideological foundation. That would be like a shadow without a light source, a hole when there is no surface. To talk about “development” is to set goals for human social improvement, and the choices we make in setting those goals are inherently normative. We can’t escape this circle, so we might as well be explicit about it.

PS. Yes, I’m aware this has all been said a thousand times before, and often better. I decided to write the post anyway because it helped me organize some of my own thinking on the subject, and because the occasional reminder still can’t hurt.


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