Wars, Guns, and Votes

by on March 24, 2009 at 7:17 am in Books, Political Science | Permalink

The subtitle is Democracy in Dangerous Places and the author is Paul Collier.  Here are three bits:

Anke and I have estimated the proportion of Africa's private wealth that is held outside the region.  By 2004 it had reached the astounding figure of 36 percent: more than a third of Africa's own wealth is outside the region.


Collectively, the countries of the bottom billion are spending around $9 billion on the military, of which up to 40 percent is being financed by donors.


The history of Britain post-403 makes the post-colonial history of Africa look like a staggering success.

The key point of the book is how and why democracy doesn't work so well for the bottom billion.  The early discussion of the incentives facing quasi-democratic governments is dysfunctional societies is brilliant.  It's the best discussion I've seen of why "produce better government" is not the prevailing incentive in such societies.  You can learn why ethnic diversity lowers the value of public sector activity but raises private sector productivity, why skills for construction are often a binding constraint in very poor societies, why the social returns to peacekeeping are so high, why Kalashnikovs are cheaper in Africa, why there are fewer civil wars in larger countries, and how the Ivory Coast went from development model to disaster.

One main policy recommendation that the West should promise "coup-proof" defensive interventions to any African government which abides by real democratic elections.  Can this work?

The claimed takeaway is that African nations have too much sovereignty, not too little. 

It's not a perfect book.  Collier describes his work frequently, and fairly (he doesn't overclaim), but often I would have liked to hear more about the broader literature as well.

Paul Collier has done it again.  This will be one of the "must buy" books of this year.  Buy it here.

1 Luke G. March 24, 2009 at 7:45 am

“The Bottom Billion” is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books ever; I’ll definitely be buying this one. Thanks for the recommendation.

2 Blackadder March 24, 2009 at 9:42 am

The history of Britain post-403 makes the post-colonial history of Africa look like a staggering success.

Does this mean that we *won’t* have to wait 650 years before Africa gets recolonized?

3 happyjuggler0 March 24, 2009 at 11:15 am

Coup-proof? Is this a good idea, even if it is somehow feasible? Keep in mind that Hitler was legally elected, and legally received all of his power. Same goes for Hugo Chavez, even if he does harass his opposition.

As things stand, the US basically sucks at nation building, I’d hate to see us try to interfere any more than we have already done in other countries internal affairs. I think the most that we can reasonably achieve is a “naked aggression cross border invasion proof” doctrine, where the US military won’t allow invasions except as a method of genuine self defense.

4 caveat bettor March 24, 2009 at 11:52 am

Hear, hear, the US does royally suck. But given my visits to Central America, Europe, and Asia, I’m thinking it sucks less than most other places. Employment, education, healthcare, housing, food, … even water is generally better here.

Canada is nice (and Australia and New Zealand from what I’ve heard). But Canada gets huge defense subsidies and a huge privatized healthcare loophole from the US, so it doesn’t really exist with the codependencies from its neighbor.

5 Sisyphus March 24, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Why not make the coup-proof plan an international treaty? Various developed world democracies agree that they will provide military intervention to any protect any democratically elected government that agrees to the treaty (presumably the U.S. and probably the UK and France would be required signatories for the plan to be effective). You probably need to have the plan include election monitoring, but that could be done by existing NGOs or the UN, otherwise election fraud could be used to avoid the treaty’s limits. The treaty would be non-binding on non-signatories, and the signatories might even pledge not to engage in regime change in non-signatories without other violations of the UN Charter by non-signatories.

It’s not going to solve every problem with third world democracies or other third world governments. But it might be better than the status quo.

6 ami March 24, 2009 at 1:58 pm

“However, it’s a well-known fact that democracy doesn’t usually succeed in low-IQ, low per-capita GDP countries (and oil/mineral wealth doesn’t count).”

actually, in Collier’s Bottom Billion, he discusses how resources might make democracy MORE dysfunctional(rent-seeking), and by removing those countries from analysis researchers do see greater GDP growth under democracy than dictatorship.

fwiw my own position is that ending our agricultural subsidies and trade barriers (most particularly cotton and sugar) would be our highest-impact contribution to poverty reduction by increasing income to poor rural farmers; I’d think economists/libertarians would be in favor?

7 asdf March 24, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Does the book mention the two characters “IQ”?


Then it’s like a physics book which ignores gravity. IQ is the key constraint in developmental economics. Till that’s acknowledged, developmental econ is akin to alchemy.

8 mpowell March 25, 2009 at 6:58 am

How comfortable would you be sending U.S. (or whatever country you are from) troops to defend Hugo Chavez from a military coup, for example?

This is kind of a funny question, though not surprising, I suppose. It appears that Hugo Chavez has done a lot of things that we would consider ‘wrong’, but it really takes a lot of, I don’t know, ideological blindness? to think that if he weren’t the kind of person willing to engage in those strong arm tactics that he wouldn’t have been overthrown via military coup.

That’s just to preface my saying that if this kind of thing were really able to work in practice the way we wanted it to, I would definitely support it. Can you imagine the incentive alignments here? Hey Chavez, if you allow free elections, we guarantee no military coup. Do you realize that probably most of this guy’s energy is dedicated to preventing such a coup? I imagine he would be willing to risk losing an election if winning it meant he could rest his mind. This guy is still fairly popular after all. Are you so opposed to Chavez’s economic views that you would prefer Venezuela be subjected to military dictatorship? That’s a pretty revealing position to take.

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