Thursday, December 25, 2014

Dialogus de Beijing Consensus, part 3: Optimo on the 'East Asian Model'


Pessimo's last post suggests that gradualism does not offer a model for development, but instead it is simply a model to manage economic transition. Pessimo also considers the possibility of such gradualism to be useful perhaps as a model for political transition, but then Pessimo dismisses this idea: 

"Regime liberalization and democratization are themselves rarely the product of developmental projects, they occur spontaneously, out of political and social forces that operate outside the reach of strategic developmental planning."

While development programs often engage with such endeavours, Pessimo seems to be presenting a strong normative stance here: development programs should not engage with this kind of transformation. Optimo will try to respond to both points, in turn.

First, while Pessimo is absolutely right in distinguishing a program of economic or political transition from a program to promote development, both can be conceived as programs that try to promote institutional change. Thus, while the end goal may not be the same (i.e. transitioning to a market economy, or promoting democracy may not aim at promoting economic growth), the strategies and tools of one process could potentially be useful to the other. For instance, the dual track strategy to allow state-owned corporations in China to gradually transition from a command economy to a market economy is sometimes used to reform inefficient bureaucracies. 

While this point assumes that functional institutions are conducive to economic growth (and therefore institutional reform would be the central goal of a development program), there are scholars who do not subscribe to this hypothesis. Even if Pessimo share such skepticism, Optimo still believes that Pessimo should have reasons to subscribe to gradualism as a model for development. The gradual implementation of policy change seems to be a general principle that is widely accepted among management scholars. Perhaps the most famous and one of the earliest piece supporting this idea is "The Science of Muddling Through" by Charles Lindblom, written in 1959. So, even if one is not trying to promote development through institutional change, but would be instead advocating for policy changes, the gradualism should still serve as a guiding principle. In this context, perhaps the East Asian model is the best example of such principle being applied in large scale.

Second, Pessimo is skeptical of the possibility of promoting any kind of political liberalization intentionally. It is not hard to side with Pessimo if one thinks of George W. Bush trying to bring democracy to the four corners of the world, and invading Iraq under this motto. However, the normative challenge posed by Pessimo is hard to reconcile with the views of one of the most respected thinkers in the development world today, Amartya Sen. In his book Development as Freedom, Sen argues that democratic regimes are conducive to development in a multitude of ways that ultimately enhance human capabilities. One of the most interesting claims developed by Sen in this regard is the idea that democracies avert famines. In other words, democracies avert exactly the kind of individual pain and suffering that Pessimo seems to have identified earlier on as a problem that does deserve our attention and concern, as development scholars. Thus, from a normative standpoint, there seems to be strong reasons to be pursuing political liberalization and promoting democratization in a developmental context. And maybe gradualism may be the way to get there, for the reasons presented earlier. 

Last but not least, Optimo is hoping (in its endless optimism) that Pessimo has not encountered a drunk with horses in the roof, but has instead had a lovely encounter with Santa Claus and is happily sitting by the tree opening presents at this moment. And since these are not mutually exclusive hypotheses (maybe it was indeed Santa and maybe he was drunk), Optimo hopes that Pessimo has had a chance to share a glass and have a toast with the good old man!

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