Of Subservient Peasants and Economic Booms

Here is a sentence I never thought I would see in 2013:

Peasants, many of whom still long for absolute rule, remain remarkably subservient.

That’s from a new bit in Foreign Affairs called “Booming Bhutan,” part of a five-part series looking at the fastest-growing economies in the world in 2012.

I know only the vaguest outlines of Bhutan’s recent history, but I’m instantly suspicious of any claim that a large group of people longs for absolutism. As the article describes, Bhutan has experienced a lot of political and socioeconomic disruptions in the past decade, and many of those changes have directly not benefited the small farmers who comprise a substantial share of the country’s population:

Karga Lama, a journalist who has covered Bhutan, wrote to me that he wonders whether “people at the grassroots [are] really enjoying and benefitting from the process of democracy, or [if] the few people at the upper echelon of political structure [are] taking the cream.” Indeed, 40 percent of the population are still subsistence farmers, crowded on the country’s small portion of arable land. Seeking better opportunities, many young Bhutanese are moving to Thimpu, the capital, but few are finding gainful employment. Cheaply constructed commercial and residential buildings have been erected to house new inhabitants and the city is losing its unique architectural character. Traffic jams and petty crimes have also become more frequent.

I read that passage and I think: Maybe it’s not “absolute rule” these “peasants” long for but the relative assurance of the life that came before these developmental push of the past 10 years. I think of pensioners in the former Soviet Union who are often described as yearning for tyranny because they vote for the Communist Party and talk wistfully about the benefits they enjoyed in the old days. A distaste for uncertainty about one’s ability to produce or afford food and shelter should not be conflated with an affirmation of all aspects of an old order that predictably delivered those things. Maybe it isn’t absolutism these farmers want so much as freedom from the intrusions of the developmental state those “few people at the upper echelon of political structure” are attempting to construct for their own aggrandizement.

More generally, I wonder about the premise of the series of which this essay is a part. You see this kind of “best practices” logic a lot in writing about development—find the cases that are doing something you’d like, see what’s making them tick so you can try to replicate or emulate it elsewhere. In the case of economic growth, though, this approach is almost always going to be misleading. Economic growth is measured as a percentage, and as Charles Wheelan writes in Naked Statistics,

Percentages don’t lie—but they can exaggerate. One way to make growth look explosive is to use percentage change to describe some change relative to a very low starting point.

The countries at the top of the IMF’s 2012 list nicely illustrate this principle in action. According to the IMF, the five fastest-growing economies in 2012 were Sao Tome and Principe, South Sudan, Guinea, Bhutan, and Mongolia. What does that set of cases tell us about the causes of exceptionally rapid economic growth? Just start from a low baseline—in other words, be poor—and possess copious natural resources that are currently in high demand! (In Bhutan’s case, that natural resource is hydropower,which it sells to its power-hungry neighbor, India). Or, if you’re not especially poor now, you can always knock output down and set yourself up for a nice rebound effect with a civil war and state collapse, like #8 Libya did. Lessons learned, indeed.

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