I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to get a bit aggressive about disciplinary expertise for a second.
William Easterly has an interesting post about the “mystery of the benevolent autocrat”, observing that while the highest growth rates in the world between 1960 and 2008 are all in autocracies, so are the worst growth rates over the same time period. Easterly concludes that autocracy is a high-risk choice for producing growth, that “for every Lee Kuan Yew, there’s a Jean-Bedel Bokassa”.
Good point. Except that like a lot of policy wonkery informed by economics and quantitative political science, both Easterly and the people he’s criticizing are acting as if autocracy is a discrete choice made primarily for the sake of growth off of a menu of possible options or alternative choices. I know Easterly doesn’t really think that, but life is not a game of Civilization V.
The thing is, both the character of government and economic growth are the products of histories both particular and global, and the moment where leaders sit down and make a clear choice about either never comes.
This is pretty much what drives me up the wall about the cottage industry that’s grown up in development circles that aims to identify the magic variables that have allowed Botswana to have a positive trend line in so many areas. Here’s how I see it: you can list all the variables you like, test them out in the data, and probably identify many valid contributing factors. But as a historian, I have to tell you that a lot of it goes back to subtle contingencies involved in the manner of Botswana’s incorporation into the British Empire, the particular political and cultural leadership of certain 19th Century Tswana chiefs, the complicated social history of many Tswana communities in relation to Christianity, and the proximity of industrializing South Africa. And then from that, diamonds and a single major ethnicity and a rather enlightened postcolonial elite and so on.
So: history. And non-reproducible history at that. Not a strategy chosen off of a menu of options in an abstract setting.
This is why historians aren’t generally a big presence at the policy-makers’ table.