One of my favorite political economists, Chris Blattman (who I’ll have the great pleasure of meeting next month when he comes to speak in Pete Boettke's PPE workshop), discusses a paper of mine published some years ago in the Journal of Comparative Economics entitled, “Better off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse.” [Ungated, but incomplete, version here (see comments below)].
Chris buys my paper's basic point: some governments are so bad that they’re worse than no government at all. But he wonders whether this applies to Somalia, which my paper uses to illustrate its idea.
Chris requested me to respond to his post. Given my admiration for him and his work, I thought I should oblige.
1. Chris questions the quality of the data (drawn from the UN, World Bank, and WHO) relating to Somali development.
I agree. The best feature of these data is that they are (or at least at the time of my research on this topic, they were) the best data that are available. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re “good.”
There are two ways one can proceed in light of this:
[A] Don’t use these data, which in the Somali case would mean refraining from making any empirical investigations or observations about development at all.
[B] Use them with the caveat that they’re merely the best available data.
I went with option [B].
2. Chris wonders if I’m too focused on the short run. Although a constrained Somali state may not be feasible at the moment, with some growing pains, it may be feasible in the future.
I again agree. As I often point out when people ask me to comment on this topic, the critically important thing for thinking about anarchy and development in Somalia (or anywhere else for that matter) is to compare development under Somali anarchy to potential development under Somalia’s relevant institutional alternatives. That means systems of government that are actually in Somalia’s “institutional opportunity set.”
This set is considerably smaller than the institutional alternatives that occupy an unconstrained set. The unconstrained set includes “first-best governments,” such as those we observe in North America and western Europe.
My beef has long been with persons who argue that Somali statelessness is “bad” by (often implicitly) comparing it to governments that are the exception (such as the United States’ government) instead of the rule—let alone the rule in sub-Saharan Africa. It seems to me that the knee-jerk reaction when looking at Somalia's problems is to respond with a boisterous “They need government!”, ignoring the rather important detail of what kind of government Somalia would be likely to get if it were to get one. (For more on this, check out Chris Coyne's paper on Somalia and the nirvana fallacy).
If Somalia had a random pull on the global distribution of governments, I think an argument could be made that it may still be better off stateless. (For those who haven't already, as a fun exercise, take a gander at Foreign Policy’s “Weak and Failed States Index” and see what most governments in the world actually look like).
If the pull came from the distribution of existing governments in Somalia’s part of the world, which may be more sensible given Somalia’s similar “historical constraints,” I think that argument would get even stronger.
If the pull instead came from the western world, I think that argument would fall apart.
Advocates of Somali government seem to have the latter pull in mind. But I can’t figure out why: as I suggest above, these are the exceptions among governments in the world, not the rule.
Of course, a reasonable disagreement can exist about what the relevant institutional alternative to Somali anarchy is. I take this to be what Chris is offering by raising the question of trajectory and long-run, "good" (or at least better) government possibilities. And I have no objection to it.
What I don’t think is reasonable is simply assuming--for the short run or the long run--that the institutional alternative to Somali anarchy is something like government of Switzerland, which is what lots of people I talk to about Somalia seem to have in mind when they argue that government would obviously be better.
3. Chris suspects the improvement in Somali development under anarchy has been in the microstates of Somaliland and Puntland.
In my paper I address this issue and show that, according to the data at least, “microstate Somalia” hasn’t been the exclusive locus of development improvement in Somali post-1991 (Somaliland does do better than stateless, southern Somalia; but Puntland does worse). My friend, Ben Powell, who has also published research on statelessness in Somalia addresses this issue in greater depth (if I recall correctly). I believe he finds the same.
Is the “average” situation in Somalia anarchic or formally governed? I don’t know . . . In part this is because I don't how reasonable it is to think about Somaliland or Puntland as “governments.” If a “government” lacks the power to raise taxes, it doesn’t strike me as much of a government. But a reasonable person could disagree.
4. Someone in the comments on Chris’ blog suggests that my paper uses the wrong counterfactual. I should compare Somalia without government to Somalia’s neighbors, which have governments, not to Somalia under its own government before it collapsed.
I agree that this comparison is (also) important. That’s why in my paper I consider it. (You need to read the published version of the paper, which contains this comparison, not the working-paper version on my website, which doesn’t. I would prefer to have the published version on my website. But copyright law prevents me).
Here’s the result: stateless Somalia continues to look pretty good. My colleague, Claudia Williamson, and I undertake a different look along these lines in our paper published in the Law and Development Review: “Anarchy and Development: An Application of the Theory of Second Best.” Ben Powell, whose paper I mention above, does so too. The results in these papers are similar.
5. Chris wonders whether international attempts to reestablish a central government in Somalia are more likely to lead to stability or violence.
I haven’t studied Somalia closely in years. But my recollection from when I was studying it closely was that spikes in turmoil and violence under statelessness were positively correlated with attempts to reestablish a central government. Such attempts disturbed the equilibrium of “power sharing” between “warlords” that prevailed up to those interventions, putting the “big stick” up for grabs. So people fought for access to the “big stick.”
If this is right, does that mean that attempts to reestablish central government couldn’t, in some much longer-term way that we can forsee, help produce stability? No. But that doesn’t strike me as a very strong reason to support the attempted reestablishment of central government in Somalia.
I look forward to meeting Chris in person in September.