*Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning*

That is the new book by Nigel Biggar, and it has already created a storm of controversy because of his claims that the British empire is, in my words, “underrated.”

Let me first say that I am in no way upset at this thesis being put explicitly on the table.  And the book has many valuable discussions, covering issues such as how hard (at some point) the British worked to ban slavery, what were their motives for empire, what kinds of pressures for assimilation were asserted, and much more.

My disappointment is how little space is devoted to the topic of sustainable economic growth.  In which parts of the empire did British rule boost sustainable economic growth, relative to a counterfactual of peaceful interaction but no conquest?  Singapore and Hong Kong seem obviously much richer and better off due to earlier British rule.  Malaysia likely as well, though the magnitude of the gain there is smaller.  But Sierra Leone not?  The country is miserably poor and has had numerous years of civil war, with a legacy of slavery as well.  Who could object to trying another run of history there, removing the British imperial role?  It is hard to see that it could get very much worse.  But then where does one put Kenya?

And what about all the other places in between?  Most notably historic India?  Biggar does consider the growth topic very explicitly on pp.165-176, mostly in the context of India, but I would have liked to see much, much more.  And I wish he had noted that post-colonial rates of growth in India were generally higher than under British rule, even with a lot of badly conceived socialist policies.  Perhaps British rule was required as a kind of pre-investment (railways? English language?), but all this could receive far greater attention.

I am happy to recommend this book, but I am not sure what is the ultimate standard of judgment of British rule.  So much seems to depend on which is the relevant counterfactual.  There is always the “cheap” argument of “better us than them,” whether it be the French, Dutch, Portuguese, or whomever.  And how should we think about Ireland, where centuries of British rule only pay off after 1970 or so?

In any case, most episodes of British rule could have been much, much better than they actually were.  So I am not convinced this book is framing the questions the very best way, though it is certainly the framing that these days will draw the most attention, the strongest attempts at cancellation, and the most ardent defenses from the Right.

It was not exactly the book I wanted, but I hope you read it.  You can pre-order it here, or as I did have it shipped from UK Amazon.


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