An Orthogonal Development Theory

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman by Jeremy Adelman

Conversation – Instalment 12: An Orthogonal Development Theory

Chapter 10. Columbia Years                                                                       




Howard Adelman















   C                                                                    B                                                             D

The lines AB and CD are orthogonal to one another.

If CB and BD represent two oppositional development theories, then AB, at right angles to both theories and illustrated as perpendicular to both, makes the third theory mathematically orthogonically related to the other two theories. On p. 322, Jeremy describes AH’s thinking as so “orthogonal”. (p. 322) By explicating and clarifying the key characteristics of AH’s development “theory”, I want to show that it is indeed a theory –contrary to Hirschman’s (and Jeremy’s) protests otherwise. As Jeremy put it, AH “began to think about development in Columbia from the ground up – with a style but with no theory.” (p. 303) As AH worded it, “I looked at ‘reality’ without theoretical preconceptions of any kind.” (p. 297)

This is correct if “theory” is exclusively restricted to sets of statements or principles which are abstract and in terms of which events or actions are explained and even can be predicted. But theory also applies to principles that guide action or a set of practices by means of which judgments can be made. So although AH never had a theory of development in terms of a general abstract model, he certainly did have a theory about interpreting the phenomenal world of experience.

The problem goes back to the Greeks, and Aristotle in particular, where theoria was contrasted and seen as wholly other than practice. This is one reason his theory of health and the humours was so messed up and his theory of humours was so misleading for health practitioners for centuries. Diagnosis of disease begins with identifying four sets of key variables: a set of symptoms or indicators, anatomical location, physiological functions and an interpretation of the aetiology of the disease. The theoretical designation of a disease is then modified in each of these categories in accordance with experience and actual practice. There is no abstract model of the disease. AH developed a theory of development in precisely these terms.

Beginning with a quote from Franz Kafka as usual, Jeremy begins his chapter on Hirschman’s work in Columbia, the country to which he went when his career in Washington was still encountering roadblocks. “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering that you could avoid.” (p. 295) The quotes from Kafka are always very pointed, but this one I found to be particularly poignant. When Jeremy was still in high school during the seventies, he took a year off to serve as a volunteer with Canada World Youth and served that year in a very remote part of Columbia living with a poor peasant family and assisting them while, at the same time, he gained his mastery of Spanish, albeit with a Colombian accent.

While Jeremy was with the family, the mother gave birth. When the infant was very young, he contacted me from this remote part of Colombia. The infant was very ill. The family lacked the resources to travel some distance and take the infant to the nearest nursing station or infirmary. He felt helpless because the ideology of Canada World Youth ran on a doctrine of non-interference in the local situation other than providing volunteers. Infusions of wealth from outside would deform the local economy, introduce distortions and such interventions were actively prohibited by volunteers. Jeremy wanted to ask me for the money to help out but was conflicted since he felt bound by the principles he had accepted when joining Canada World Youth. He was deeply torn. The issue was clearly not the amount since it would have been a relative pittance even if the health fees were added to the travel costs. Instead of insisting on sending him the money and persuading Jeremy that, “To save one child is to save the world,” I also practiced non-intervention and did nothing. I felt terrible. He felt very much worse as he watched the infant die in front of him. I am convinced that we both acted improperly at the time. I believe, to this day, that this event scarred Jeremy, though I believe it instilled in him his first suspicions of abstract doctrine and his attraction to dealing with the present and the immediate demands of the moment. The event certainly scarred me.

Development theory has very direct consequences on the lives of ordinary families. AH arrived in a country torn by civil war (La Violencia). Jeremy characterizes AH’s years in Colombia as the best of his and Sarah’s lives, a place of adventure and cultural stimulation where Albert was intellectually reborn. The World Bank had already reinvented itself in the aftermath of the Marshall Plan as the vehicle to save the Third World from communism and ultra-ambitious state planning. Colombia was to be its first test case. AH brought a scepticism of abstract ideological formulations, an attraction to direct observation of small things and routine practices combined with the opportunity and continuity over time to make those observations, and a belief in learning by doing reinforced by Eugenio Colorni and his readings of Montaigne.

The World Bank formed a survey mission led by the Canadian-born economist from Nova Scotia, Lauchlin Currie, whom I met briefly at SimonFraserUniversity in the late sixties when I participated in developing a plan for student housing for the university. I regret that I never got to know him, especially since, in retrospect, he had developed, I believe, the theory of money similar and far more profound than the one I espoused. He also showed that he had an intimate acquaintance with cooperatives. He had attended St. of X (FrancisXavierUniversity) where he was undoubtedly infused with its Catholic teachings of social service and cooperation. Currie went to LSE and then earned his PhD at Harvard writing his thesis on banking and the money supply. He was an ardent Keynsian New Dealer adviser to FDR during WWII, a close adviser to Harry Dexter White at Bretton Woods and had been involved in the secret VENONA Project decrypting Soviet cables where he (inadvertently?) became a source to Soviet intelligence. He ran the World Bank Colombian Survey Mission from 1949 to 1953 and stayed on in Colombia when the USA refused to renew his U.S. passport.

For Currie, the object of economic planning was to raise the standard of living in Colombia and directly tackle the problem of poverty.  In one year, starting in July 1949, a team had been assembled, a comprehensive plan developed and a National Planning Institute initiated to implement the plan, The Basis of a Development Program for Colombia. The plan envisioned “aggressive and coordinated improvements on all fronts simultaneously to avoid distortions, bottlenecks, and lags.” (p. 300) The plan was based on the developmental conception of “balanced growth” and the “big push” only to have the grandiose expectations crash against “inconvenient realities”.

One of those very inconvenient realities was the clash of personalities and approaches. AH was hired as advisor to the National Planning Council. Currie, through the machinations of Emilio Toro, the Colombian member of the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank, returned as an “adviser” to the Council so the Council now had two advisors though Hirschman was the one charged with overseeing implementation but, unlike Currie, did not have a Board member in his pocket to push his views. AH had left Washington’s skulduggery for Bogota’s. “Currie liked big plans, especially when they made administrative reform the condition for everything else; Hirschman preferred projects, even big ones – but the more specific, the better. Aligned with the Liberals, Currie tended to create animosity between the Council and the Conservative government; Hirschman eschewed partisanship and wanted to focus on problem solving.” (p. 301)

If Hirschman was burdened with the Currie-Toro duo undermining his authority and ability to act, the Council hired another outside economic adviser from Belgium, Jacques Torfs, who approached the problem of development from his own idiosyncratic abstract esoteric theory of minimizing capital-to-output ratios. In addition to rival abstract theorists posing problems, AH took seriously the principle of being an adviser to facilitate and advance local expertise and authority, while Currie believed that detachment as well as true expertise gave foreigners an advantage. AH did not have the same reverence for detachment. He preferred experience and close observation. He wanted to concentrate on what the country was doing right and not its grand pathologies. However, his proposed study on successful businesses and successful entrepreneurs and managers and their methods and means of financing never took place.

When General Rojas Pinilla’s military coup in June of 1953 quickly developed into the usual predatory military capitalism compounded by a slide in coffee prices, Colombia’s economy slipped quickly down hill. At the same time, austerism, the other end of the abstract theoretical economic spectrum, took command. Currie went off to raise prize Holstein cattle. AH determined he was now impotent. He resigned just when Senator Joseph McCarthy was at the pinnacle of his power heading the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953 and 1954. Prudently, AH went into private practice as an economic consultant in Bogota to help investors identify opportunities and solutions to problems. Opportunism (AB) had been developed as a counterpoint to both Keynesian master large scale planning and stimulus for a broad approach to balanced growth (BD) as opposed to austerism (BC), a policy advocating restrictions on money supply and reductions in deficits just when a country needed a stimulus.

Opportunism focussed on the openings for entrepreneurs, focussed on civil society initiatives rather than grand government policy of either the austerists or the Keynesians. The theory, in the second sense I specified at the beginning, stressed initiatives from the bottom rather than grand views from the top. This was precisely when Walt Whitman Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto was published by Cambridge University Press and became must reading when I was an undergraduate. In spite of all Rostow’s bended intellectual knee to the uniqueness of each nation’s experience and the somewhat arbitrariness of the stages-of-growth and its limitations, his book offered a very positive law-like approach to understanding economic development that built on and went beyond Croce’s Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx in providing both a grand theory of economic development as well as a grand theory of history in terms of dialectics without Marx’s romantic revolutionary spirit. Rostow had proposed a grand theory of modernization depicting the worship of sustained long-term economic growth itself as a central part of the doctrine and the key determining forces at each stage of economic development.

Rostow’s treatise would soon be followed by Max Millikan’s 1963 volume, The Political Case for Economic Development and his 1966 even more influential book as far as I was concerned, Equity versus Productivity in Economic Development. Liberals had their antidote to Marxism and their own romantic versions of how to rescue impoverished countries from the debilitation of stagnant economic circumstances.

To a conference in October 1954 on the new theories and their implications for policy, AH brought the message that the emperor was naked and that the empirical date behind the theories were almost entirely lacking. The abstraction of balanced and comprehensive planning hit the shoals not only of a complete lack of sufficient evidence and too high a degree of abstraction, but a belief that the future was predictable and could be managed whereas AH had been too deeply steeped in the Hegelian dictum that we can only understand by looking backward. As Hegel wrote in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, “One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it… When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.”

During this period in the philosophy of history, two major theories were in contention,. One was the positivist views inherited from Benedetto Croce of Carl Hempel who was then at Princeton. For Hempel, history should be akin to a science and explain events and actions by subsuming them under general laws that could be verified by their predictability. Opposed to the grand theories of the positivists were the theories of the verstehen school then led by the University of Toronto philosopher, William Dray, who thought that history was about re-enacting the thought processes of historical agents and, as I wrote in my PhD thesis, subsuming decisions about which actions to take under more general hypothetical imperatives to guide human conduct. Was history a subject matter for pure scientific reasoning or for hypothetical imperatives and practical normative reasoning? I, like Albert Hirschman, opted for neither. Both theories never even met the conditions of satisfying the cases each side cited. We do not explain historical actions by subsuming them under general scientific laws or subsuming them under normative imperatives. Further, we do not even explain actions or events; rather, we explain incongruencies. We deal with puzzles that face us and focus on problems not on actions abstracted from the context of the inquirer.  

Why do I call this orthogonal approach a theory when it so stridently disavows abstract modeling? Because it does not! It only disavows extending any generalization into the future without irrefutable solid evidence. In the interim, analysis can reveal patterns of contradictions and ways of resolving them, but the dialectical pattern revealed cannot be applied to futurology for the very essential dynamic of the model depends on innovation and re-inventing itself thereby creating new but unpredictable opportunities that will be taken advantage of on the ground while those actual innovations are entirely missed by the theorists rooted as they are in extrapolations from the past.

In sum, AH did have a theory of development, one not based on either supposedly scientific laws of explanation and prediction nor on empathetic re-enactment to reveal the moral imperatives governing agent’s choices and actions. The theory, loosely referred to as Opportunism or, more awkwardly, Possibilism, had the following characteristics.

1. Focus on problems or incongruencies;

2. Use detailed case studies and focus on acute observation of fine details and distinctions;

3. Establish concrete and routine practices that can be continued over time to test efficaciousness – learn by doing;

4. Try to locate and identify initiatives that will be game changers;

5. Bureaucracy, whether in a state or a private firm, inherently wears blinders;

6. Evaluations of development projects should not simply be about cost-effect studies but about assumptions, capacities, priorities and unintended as well as intended effects.

Both right wing monetarism and the stress on entrepreneurs, and left wing or liberal Keynesians stressing wide scale government economic interventions in bad economic time, are both correct, but monetarism must give up its vision of an ideal balancing point in a system at equilibrium, when, by its nature as an innovative enterprise, it is inherently unstable, and Keynesians must not allow stimulus and intervention to be transmogrified into “permanent revolution” and continuing governance (as distinct from regulation). AH provided the most important antidote to the excesses of both theories when applied to development.  


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