Arnold Kling  

Easterly and the Caplan-Cowen Debate

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William Easterly writes,

The end of the “development expert” paradigm does not mean the end of hope for development. Development is al­ready gradually ending poverty (global poverty rates have fallen by more than half in the past three decades) – not be- cause of development experts such as those who wrote the World Bank Growth Commission report – but thanks to more freedom for more of the 6.7bn individual development experts alive today.

Pointer from Don Boudreaux.

This may or may not relate to the Caplan-Cowen debate over whether "People are basically all the same." Easterly says that there is no such thing as a special "development expert" who can benefit poor countries by telling them what to do. On the other hand, as he points out, knowing that there is no development expertise is in itself a form of special expertise, which he credits Hayek with having.

My take on the Caplan-Cowen debate is this. Imagine that we lined up everyone in the world according to how similar they are to, say, Bryan, and give them each a score. Person number 1 is close to an identical twin. Call this person's score 100. Person number 6.7 billion is about as different from Bryan as any human being can be. Call this person's score 0. In functional notation, f(1) = 100 and f(6.7 billion) = 0.

One way to describe the Caplan-Cowen debate is that Bryan thinks that the function f(i) degrades quickly, while Cowen thinks it degrades slowly. My guess is that it degrades more slowly than Caplan intuitively believes but perhaps more quickly than what Cowen intuitively believes. However, I am not sure what the similarity metric is. Cowen makes it sound like it measures moral tendencies, whereas Caplan makes it sound like intellectual compatibility. Perhaps they are talking past one another, and I am merely adding to the breeze.

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COMMENTS (6 to date)
conchis writes:

If the function degraded really quickly, that too could be consistent with Tyler's view. People can still be largely the same, even if almost all of them are different to Bryan.

James writes:

Wouldn't the relevant question be the standard deviation from the mean?

If Cowen is more correct, then the standard deviation from the mean should be small; if Caplan is correct, the deviation should be much larger, as the exceptional people would be much further away from the average.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

The relevant question for Caplan appears to be the standard deviation from Caplan.

michael gordon writes:


I commented a couple of days ago on your debate with Tyler, my post left at Cowen's Marginal Revolution site. Here, in a nutshell, are a few problems with both your views.

1) It makes no sense whatsoever to say that people are all equal unless some standard(s) of evaluation are set out.
-- All people are mortal, irrespective of the historical or evolutionary period they lived in.
-- All people, to survive, have to have shelter and food.
-- Most people seek to have children, though obviously the number they aim for varies: it depends on the economic system (in peasant agrarian societies, half of all kids will die before the age 10); it depends on their religious and secular systems of internalized values --- e.g., Mormons as opposed to secularists who don't even marry or, in the case of African-Americans today, fatherly indifference and abandonment . . . what with 70% of all African-American children born today are illegitimate; and so on. --- All people feel physical and emotional pain and grieve, generally, for loved ones who die.
These are all biological similarities, on which scores we are all equal.

2) In solid democratic countries of the contemporary sort, to go on, all citizens beyond a certain age are equal in a right to vote, and in principle all are equal before the law . . . including presidents and prime ministers. That is not the case in about 4/5 of the world’s roughly 200 recognized territorial states today . . . especially equality before the law in practice.

3) When it comes to such matters as educational performance, professional accomplishments, athletic prowess, artistic creativity, and economic drive, risk-taking, and (if lucky) achievement, people are obviously different on these scores. For that matter, siblings differ considerably as well, and there are intriguing studies that show the first-born child is the most driven to achieve --- not that these studies are fool-proof.

4) In moral matters, people vary noticeably --- even in the same culture and social setting. In Nazi-occupied Europe, those who risked their lives to help the oppressed and hunted Jews were usually from the working-classes and peasantry, not the well-to-do urban bourgeoisie. Why? I know of no clear reason, except possibly they were less cynical about the world.

In Nazi Germany, the genocidal SS --- the Hitlerian special guard force in charge of the Holocaust --- was loaded with German Ph.D.'s. And in 1930, three years before Hitler came to power, the Nazi student organization captured power in student government all over Germany.

5) So where are we?

-- (i.) In key biological respects, people clearly are equal and more or less the same --- leaving aside the question of how much certain kinds of talents are inborn: intellectual, athletic, artistic, and musical . . . which, in any case, have to be nurtured by families and others for those talents to blossom.

-- (ii.) On the other hand, cultures --- historically and at present --- do vary considerably, and that means the internalized shared-belief and value-systems, along with operational social norms, value different kinds of talents.

Examples: A Ph.D. in economics would be worthless in ancient Sparta or any hunting-gathering tribal or clan-society. Women will be treated differently and valued differently by the power-holders, especially in societies that discriminate systematically against them. Many societies, past and present, are racist and systematically devalue certain groups . . . usually racial or ethnic minorities. Again, a relatively honest, moral person seeking to advance politically or economically in, say, Arab societies will be regarded as a simpleton and fool if he doesn't join in the crony patron-follower networks and share their predatory views of what they are entitled to and what qualifies for advancement. Alternatively, if more ruthless, he might not belong to the right tribal-clan group and hence, if ambitious, will join some conspiratorial group hoping to kill of the king or the president-for-life ruler and his cliques.

-- And finally,(iii.) within any society, evoke a specific standard or set of standards, then obviously people do vary considerably in their qualifications and talents . . . including, to stay with the Arab example, the necessary degree of mistrust across tribal-clan lines and cynicism about human nature and hence the values and virtues of elbowing and clapper-clawing your way upward through the right patron-follower networks, based on mutual back-scratching . . . not on educational and professional achievements.

(6) As for the range of diversity on those latter scores --- what each social system and its culture value the most --- we're obviously talking about the mean and the distribution around it . . . measured, say, by the standard deviation.

-- Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor:

michael gordon writes:

One follow-up point, briefly put.

It puzzles me why you or anyone would pay another person to meet with you and do what? Any exceptions?

Three come to mind:

1) A journalist or writer who can't gain access to the person otherwise, yet whose talk might be relevant to the writer's work. (Bribing sources would cover this too, including police paying a stool pigeon in the community.)

2. Depending on his sexual life and interests, a man paying money to a very beautiful woman for sex . . . whether that is a one-time encounter, or as his mistress, or as his wife.

3. And, in my case, I'd be delighted if Jesus were to come back to earth --- a big if! --- to pay for his and my fare to visit Rome and take him hand-in-hand through the Vatican, in order to find out his views as to how the Church that claims to rule in his name has developed riches and power beyond the dreams of Roman emperors.

-- Michael Gordon, AKA, the buggy professor:

Ray G writes:

Hmm, I'm prone to seeing it as Arnold as framed it; moral tendencies versus intellectual capability.

My thoughts run to natural law and Jungian personality types, but in a nutshell, I'd have to say people are pretty much the same.

Which pains me since I would pay for Bryan's lunch, but probably pay to not eat lunch with Tyler.

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