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The World's Best Development Economics Weblog

The highly intelligent and articulate Dani Rodrik say that the highly articulate and intelligent Chris Blattman runs the world's best development economics weblog. IMHO, Dani is right:

Chris Blattman's Blog: When things fell apart:

Working in Uganda in the early 1980s, I came to learn what it meant to live in a world of violence. Among the reasons my colleagues in the Ministry of Cooperatives welcomed the overthrow of Idi Amin was that with Uganda no longer a pariah state, they could now attend international conferences.

And among the reasons they attended such conferences was that they could then sleep, for they need not fear the arrival of soldiers in the night.

Insights like this reminded me of something of which I was but fleetingly aware: not only the fragility of life, but also its political premise. I knew then that I would some day have to return to the issues to which that recognition gave rise.

Thus Bob Bates opens his new book, When Things Fell Apart. Now a senior professor of government at Harvard, he looks back at years of study and service to understand the roots of conflict and violence in Africa.

African states and societies developed distorted economies in the decades after independence. By the 1970s and 80s, these state structures were precariously perched. Bates describes the collapse that ensued: how plunges in commodity prices and pressures to democratize destabilized regimes, reignited old disputes, and plunged much of the continent into disorder.

What's unusual about this book: it's short, it's readable, and it's intelligent. Normally, if I get just two of the three, I'm thrilled.

Bates holds the same theory as I do: volatility in commodity prices drives conflict through the center, not the periphery. Falling prices don't make rural farmers more willing to rebel; rather falling prices lead to falling state revenues, undermining the apparatus of control.

The problem: I think we both may be wrong. The data (so far) don't support the theory. After many years in library basements copying numbers from ancient African statistical yearbooks, I have the numbers to test it. And so far: no result. Watch this space for more...

I would have put it differently. I would have said that in some places collapses in commodity prices reduced state revenues and undermined the apparatus--fewer carrots to induce compliance and fewer resources to make sticks. But I would also have said that in other places rising commodity prices undermined the center by greatly increasing the gains from upsetting the political applecart--and making the destruction wreaked on the domestic economy by civil war of little account. Anything that generates change collapses the immediate post-colonial order. Both the military and the political class have to regard themselves as servants rather than masters of the constitutional order in order for peaceful ordered liberty to be possible. Neither of these has been the case in Africa since 1960.

In retrospect, I cannot help but think that there had to have been another way. Early dominion status, with Elizabeth II R or her governor-general asking whatever politician seems most likely to maintain the confidence of the legislature to form a government--all this backed up by a military that remains part of the organization commanded from the Horse Guards. Could that have possibly worked?

One does wonder what would have happened to the constitutional order in America at the end of the eighteenth century if Adams and Hamilton had not had their huge fight that broke the Federalist Party. Would Hamilton have taken steps to ensure that the Francophile-slaveholder alliance could never take power--steps of which the Alien Act, the Sedition Act, and the formation of a standing army in the late 1790s were only the first three? I approve of what Alexander Hamilton accomplished. I do not trust him.