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Why populism is popular with elites

Amusing quote from David Brooks’ NYT oped today:

populism is popular with the ruling class. Ever since I started covering politics, the Democratic ruling class has been driven by one fantasy: that voters will get so furious at people with M.B.A.’s that they will hand power to people with Ph.D.’s. The Republican ruling class has been driven by the fantasy that voters will get so furious at people with Ph.D.’s that they will hand power to people with M.B.A.’s. Members of the ruling class love populism because they think it will help their section of the elite gain power.

The development version of populism is to appeal for stronger and more sweeping actions to help “the poor.” Of course, those actions will be implemented by the development elite. Unlike domestic politics, both elites in development are usually Ph.D.’s.

There are the “pro-market” Ph.D.’s that claim to have expert wisdom on how to make markets work in poor countries (with insufficient knowledge of those countries’ complex informal and formal institutions). Think shock therapy in former Soviet Union and structural adjustment/Washington Consensus in Africa and Latin America.

Then there are the “pro-state” Ph.D.’s that claim to have expert wisdom on how to make states work in poor countries to alleviate poverty (with insufficient knowledge on the politics and capacity of the state). Think industrial policy, protectionism, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers.

The alternative to top-down expert-driven populism in development is bottom-up development that promotes decentralized help and self-help by many, many actors…

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11 Comments

  1. Word_Bandit wrote:

    HUH?!?!?!?! Good golly Miss Molly, what on earth does this have to do with the “populism” driving right wing anarchists? The liberal elites don’t give a s*** about populism, their heads are so far up their hineys.

    Brooks is SOOOOOOOOO wrong in his assessment of liberal elitism, and he simply shows he doesn’t show how inisidious and venial it truly is ….. and I’ll be happy to contribute more, if anyone’s inclined.

    (BTW, I am not a Brooks’ basher because he’s conservative, but on this, he just doesn’t get it, AT ALL..)

    Don’t know a thing about the talking heads in econ, thank god ……

    that’s real populism.

    Thanks for the entry, apologies for tone, grammar, editorial oversights.

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  2. Mike@pvl wrote:

    The alternative to top-down expert-driven populism in development is bottom-up development that promotes decentralized help and self-help by many, many actors…

    Yes, and I assume you include some Western PhDs in that bundle of actors. There is a third strain in development that argues there is no room for help from non-local highly educated experts, even if they make every attempt to understand the institutional landscape and customs. Frustrating, because sometimes that higher level knowledge is equally necessary.

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  3. Jim wrote:

    “The alternative to top-down expert-driven populism in development is bottom-up development that promotes decentralized help and self-help by many, many actors…”

    What does this actually mean? Sounds rather like the kind of vacuous platitude you’re usually so keen to ‘satirise’.

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  4. William Easterly wrote:

    Jim, guess I’m better at criticizing existing practices than suggesting positive alternatives, as usual :>)

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Bill Steppp wrote:

    Where is Hayek when we need him? Well, making a rap video lately with his good bud Maynard….

    Posted January 26, 2010 at 11:18 pm | Permalink
  6. There are the “pro-market” Ph.D.’s that claim to have expert wisdom on how to make markets work in poor countries (with insuffiicent knowledge of those countries’ complex informal and formal institutions). Think shock therapy in former Soviet Union and structural adjustment/Washington Consensus in Africa and Latin America.

    I think it is more accurate to say that “pro-market” economists made poor political scientists, and were unable to see that their “free-market” solutions could not possibly be implemented in regimes that were blatantly uninterested in truly adopting these “free-market” solutions.

    Russia is a great example. Power was redistributed to a handful of elites (including the so-called oligarchs), while the government operated under the veneer of capitalism and democracy. The so-called “shock therapy” was not shock therapy at all, because the therapists did not have a proper understanding of Russian politics.

    The same deal occurs with free-market economists today, on the topic of Haiti (to be fair, I might be one of those that I am about to criticize). The policies of allowing capital to accumulate and be invested by local Haitians is a great and noble idea, but that alone is not enough. There has to be a government willing to implement these economic reforms, and so any good free-market approach to Haiti must be written by someone with an extensive background on Haitian politics.

    I realize that I am isolating that portion of the post, and not putting it into context. I understand, and agree, with what you wrote. They are trying to create appeal, but their case is far too simple.

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 1:50 am | Permalink
  7. Skeptic wrote:

    Frankly, does it really matter if assistance is delivered by liberal phds or conservative phds or mbas or mias, or through grassroots “NGOs” or to government agencies?

    What matters is that the vast majority of foreign assistance today is given to or “through” (with massive leakage) local elites, who use it to maintain and even increase their power over the state. Concentration of power and resources leads to bad government, which leads to poverty, which inspires foreign assistance, which further reinforces the power of the local elites. They like that. The manner in which this cycle is administered, and whether the leakage ends up in the pockets of national politicians or international consultants makes only a marginal difference to the ultimate objective of, as Prof Easterly reminds us, benefiting the poor.

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 3:59 am | Permalink
  8. David Smith wrote:

    What’s China’s approach? They are active investing in Africa, extending credits in Argentina, they have been through this debate in their own case and rejected Jeffrey Sachs’ shock therapy. They have money & are not experiencing imperial overstretch. So are they promoting their own model? Rather than PhD’s and MBA, maybe the poor of the world need to heed bridge players:

    不管白猫黑猫,抓住老鼠就是好猫

    It does not matter whether it is a white cat or a black cat, as long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.

    Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  9. Deborah Brautigam wrote:

    I don’t see the Chinese actively promoting their own model abroad (for more on this, see my new book on Chinese aid: The Dragon’s Gift, Oxford University Press). Their example is powerful enough: experiment, get evidence (“seek truth through facts”) promote what works, drop what doesn’t. However, a critical and under appreciated part of the “Beijing model” is a Chinese political elite united in promoting its own economic development. This active, developmental leadership is a missing factor in most foreign aid relationships. If other countries could actually grasp — and apply — this part of the Chinese model, we would see aid being used more effectively.

    Posted January 28, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink
  10. David Smith wrote:

    To Deborah Brautigam: Thanks for replying to my post. I’m glad you brought your book to my attention. It would be negligent of me to finish my own book without reading yours. All the best

    Posted January 30, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink
  11. Chris Hedrick wrote:

    Seems to me that Western aid ought to focus on the top of the development curve and the bottom: infrastructure to places that will maintain it (like MCC roads, in theory) and bottoms up development like well-run Peace Corps programs (humbly submit http://www.pcsenegal.org) and organizations like Tostan (www.tostan.org). Much of the rest is overly prescriptive.

    Posted January 30, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

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