Jun 29, 2014 | By

Freedom – Pre-condition for Human Development

In a recent EconTalk podcast, William Easterly called for a new “Copernican revolution” in how we look at Economic Development for poor people around the world. Rather than putting the technocratic experts (e.g. the World Bank, Bill Gates, Jeffrey Sacks) at the helm, Easterly calls for putting poor people in charge of their own future by giving them economic and political freedom. The concept is provocative and has important implications for human development and the concept of charity itself – and it echoes Swedenborg’s Laws of Divine Providence.

William Easterly is a professor of economics at NYU and author of The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2013).   One of his key observations is that international economic development has been driven for centuries by a culture of superiority in which the rich nations and their rich people, driven by good intentions, have assumed that poor nations and their poor people are unable to take care of themselves. The problem of development is therefore seen as one that can be solved by transferring know-how and resources from the rich to the poor.  But Easterly notes that all permanent and sustainable economic development (which is what has made rich countries rich) has been achieved by giving individuals the freedom to work cooperatively through free markets for their mutual betterment – not by external infusions of technical knowledge or funding.

He concludes that putting the technocratic experts from rich countries at the center of development efforts, which we continue to do today, is actually counter-productive as it reinforces a top-down structure, exacerbates the oppression at the root of why people are poor in the first place, and undermines the bottom-up initiatives that are the true driver of development success. It has also, in many cases, helped sustain the autocracies that are largely responsible for that oppression and the lack of the freedoms that are essential for sustainable human development.

Easterly’s critique of international development may also apply to the very concept of charity. We are all familiar with the saying, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Notably, this phrase first appeared in a victorian novel by Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie, Mrs. Dymond (1885). Mrs. Ritchie, and her characters, were of the privileged class, and the saying actually implies that poor people don’t know how to fish. According to Easterly, that condescending attitude is a key flaw in international economic development – and it is also a key flaw in anti-poverty efforts generally. These efforts may be driven by good intentions, but if they carry with them a culture of superiority then they will tend to reinforce the sense of oppression and undermine the autonomy and self-determination of the populations they are intended to assist. Perhaps a more compelling end to the phrase should be something like, “and go fishing with a man and you make a friend for life.”

Does the same concern apply to human charity in general? If we seek to serve the poor with our gifts and our talents, but the attitude behind that service is one of superiority, then perhaps we, too, are fostering a sense of oppression and undermining the very opportunity for those we seek to serve to create a better life for themselves?

In the Doctrine of Charity (1766) Swedenborg teaches that charity consists essentially in doing good for the neighbor. But for charity to be genuine it must also involve the recognition of one’s evils:  “No17: … it is believed that to give to the poor, to assist the needy, to relieve the widow and the fatherless… to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, to receive the stranger… and many other things, are goods of charity. But yet they are goods only so far as the man shuns evils as sins. If a man does them before he shuns evils as sins they are external goods, yea, done for the sake of merit. For they flow forth from an impure fountain; and the things which issue from such a fountain are inwardly evils.”

Accordingly, we are asked to judge our intentions before our acts of service – and if our intentions carry with them any feeling of superiority, then our acts may not be so charitable after all. Moreover, to the extent the culture of superiority is reinforced, then they may actually contribute to the spreading of a form of “evil”. Imagine the feelings of those who are being helped by an act of charity which is proffered in a culture of superiority – the very natural response will be one of resentment or even rejection – feelings of oppression rather than gratitude.

Perhaps we can say that Easterly is suggesting the following as “Laws of Human Development”. If these conditions apply, then humans will find their own solutions and create better lives for themselves.

  • Humans must be given the capacity to act freely and make their own choices – this will lead to the development of free markets.
  • They cannot be compelled to think or act in a certain way by others – especially including foreign experts or their own governments.
  • Any help they are given must be in a culture of “equal to equal” – otherwise the help will simply affirm the notion of superiority and lead to resentment and rejection by those being helped.

Now let’s look at Swedenborg’s Laws of Divine Providence, as paraphrased in the post on Are Miracles Real:

  • Humans are given the capacity to act freely and make their own choices.
  • We cannot be compelled to think or believe in a certain way (in that case we would no longer be free).
  • The working of divine providence can never be directly manifest, as that would create compulsion and remove freedom of will. (And would lead to resentment and, ultimately, rejection of God.)

There is a universal principal in play here, reflecting the congruence, or “correspondence” to use Swedenborg’s term, between the spiritual and natural worlds. Human freedom is, fundamentally, the highest good. Human freedom in the spiritual sphere, including the freedom from spiritual compulsion and oppression, is what God wishes for all human beings as it will allow us to thrive spiritually. Human freedom in the economic sphere, including freedom from compulsion and oppression by leaders or outside experts, will allow human communities to thrive materially. In both cases, of course, we must choose wisely.

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