Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion”

On page 40 I am already concerned that Collier adopts the notion that the country, instead of the citizen therein, is the economic unit. He raises issues that I think are best explained by such a distinction. The drop in living standards in Nigeria after the oil bust can only be explained by the model of people living off the government. The implicit notion here is that all oil wealth funnels thru the government. Libertarians need another suggestion. I don’t have one.

I am conflicted over the issue of who owns unexploited natural resources. Once there was no notion of ownership of land. Most things improved when land was owned; the ‘tragedy of the commons’ was avoided. The word “rent” has a pejorative connotation evoking images of lords living high on the rents they charge their tenants. When oil is discovered in the undeveloped and unowned forrest of an undeveloped country, real-politic results in the powerful being the owner. The argument that this is good for the commonweal is difficult.

Another place this conflicted notion of economic unit arises is in the discussion of land-locked nations. Is the firm in Uganda at a disadvantage because it is in Uganda, or because it is far from the sea? This bears perhaps more on the society in Kenya than that in Uganda if building a railroad thru Kenya is the solution to problems in Uganda. Was the establishment of countries by the colonial powers a good idea? Was there an alternative?

I am impressed by Collier’s logic of international standards that can be adopted by governments. They may be marvelous Shelling points. They provide points of irritation to potentially corrupt governments—leverage with which citizens can push for better government.

I notice that Collier and the several Wikipedia pages on African nations that I have read avoid talking about the colonial period. History is written by the winners, but more accurately the embarrassed winners.