April 28, 2005

Smarter Technocrats

Even if Iraq turns out okay—by which I mean, we forget about the hundreds of thousands dead and content ourselves with the fact that Zarqawi gets killed and people can vote and 99.7% of Iraqi lawmakers don't get assassinated in their homes—even if all that happens, I think it's safe to say that very few people in the U.S. would have the appetite for more full-on empire. Apart from a few delusional warbloggers, no one sane could think that victory in Iraq, if it comes, will be anything other than a snatched-from-the-jaws-of-defeat affair. So I'm not sure why Vivek Chibber writes, in the last issue of Boston Review, that Niall Ferguson's empire-advocacy work "reflects a widening current of opinion among American intellectuals, including its liberal wing."

Nevertheless, his takedown of Colossus is very, very good, and deflates a lot of delusions about Britain's grand colonial experiment in India and elsewhere, including the notion that the market and economic reforms in the various colonies were unequivocally a good thing. (And especially Ferguson's appalling contention that the famines in late 19th century India, which left at least 23 million dead, were due to "environmental" rather than egregious mismanagement.)

The rejoinder here might be, "Well, look, yes, Britain caused a lot of famines back in the day, and yes, Britain mismanaged its colonies by turning them into subjugated markets for its exports and yes, Britain wasn't very good at channeling investment and development money to the Third World, but hey, we know so much more about economics nowadays. We'd never make those mistakes." But, of course, even today we as human beings still don't seem to know a whole lot about how to make developing countries grow, and it's very likely that economists still have key pieces of macroeconomics wrong, just as they seemed to have things fairly wrong prior to the Great Depression, and just as they seemed to prior to the great stagflation under Carter. Certainly, as Robert Looney has written over and over again, the consensus neoliberal prescriptions for Iraq turned out to be disastrous in the short-term. And that's just the most obvious example. Our technocrats today are pretty good, certainly better than colonial Britain's did, but they don't seem to be perfect quite yet—if they'll ever be.
-- Brad Plumer 1:07 PM || ||