The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk (Doubleday 2012), 272 pages.
In the idealist, the system-building visionary, there is a certain natural attractiveness, a gravitational pull centered on the strength of his convictions. We desire to be a part of his crusade, or at least to root it on, because we admire the stalwart heroism we think we see in the attempt to change society and help people against all odds. The “leave the world alone” watchwords of the libertarian are, in contrast, rather less glamorous, less capable of inspiring the support of the socially conscious.
In Nina Munk’s book The Idealist, we find the story of Harvard professor Jeffrey Sachs, a charismatic economist extraordinaire who, in Munk’s words, “never fails to inspire.” Munk, a business and financial journalist who has worked at Fortune and Forbes, followed Sachs as he launched his Millennium Villages Project, a “hugely ambitious social and economic experiment” based on his vision of a world without extreme poverty. Having observed first-hand the horrors of extreme poverty — and having crunched the numbers himself — Sachs became convinced that he could “bend history” and, with a relatively small private investment, design a repeatable plan for lifting poor countries up and out of poverty. The result is a dramatic show of the power of culture and ideas, and the comparative feebleness of, as the saying goes, our best-laid plans. In her interview with EconTalk’s Russ Roberts, Munk describes the Millennium Villages Project as a “rambling runaway train,” its many twists and turns resulting in a “terrible black comedy” of unintended consequences and bureaucratic holdups. But Munk’s account is not bereft of admiration for Sachs, for his believer’s zeal and his focus. Rather it is mindful of the important difference between genuine development and charity. A remarkable naivete and, less charitably, arrogance characterize Sachs and his grandiose plans, yet their sincerity is impossible to impugn. For free marketers, the lessons contained in the story Munk weaves will prove depressingly familiar. (See the Munk interview here: https:// bit.ly/1jWfYWX. Roberts gave Sachs a chance to respond here: https://bit.ly/1jWgowo.)
Libertarianism itself eschews social visioning; its fundamental principles esteem spontaneity as among the most powerful and effective forces for good, with many of its most central critiques contending that this spontaneity is lamentably undervalued both by contemporary politics and social theorists. The Idealist shows us the lack of faith among society’s elites in the kind of progress and order that result from the voluntary, unpremeditated arrangements of free individuals. Experts, philanthropists, politicians, and bureaucrats are regarded as simply knowing better, possessing superior information and judgment, ready to mobilize resources in a way that the poor and ignorant — those who supposedly beg to be helped — cannot hope to match. Hubris and arrogance trivialize the important role of moral systems, historical realities, and cultural tendencies that are nowhere codified and are everywhere largely unquantifiable. Assumptions that Western intellectuals make about what those in “the developing world” ought to want mistakenly abstract real people out of the predicate conditions that have defined their lives.
This is Hayek’s fatal conceit made tangible on the level of social engineering. Regardless of the resources at our command or the quality of our ideas, it is, in Hayek’s words, “logically impossible” to, for example, reconstruct Somalia in the image of the West. The Idealist is instructive for libertarians insofar as it demonstrates that misconceived paternalism may come in the shape not only of pure government action, but also of ostensibly private philanthropy, among others. Skepticism and even cynicism toward the efforts of foreign scholars and do-gooders are thus not merely jaundiced naysaying; instead they are more often than not justified by the nature of the case, by the inescapable fact that we don’t know better — that notions of such concepts as progress, development, and prosperity are not readily transferable between cultures. Just as one cannot legislate cultural and historical differences out of existence, neither can one donate or volunteer them away.
The need for principle
The libertarian suspicion concerning reformism and the prospects of the political process grows out of the insight that an understanding of liberty is a necessary precondition of a libertarian society. As articulated by Benjamin Tucker, a free society “means something more than the possession of liberty”; rather it is “defined as the possession of liberty by libertarians, — that is by those who know what liberty means.” Efforts to create a free society, Tucker knew, would prove fruitless and futile unless preceded by and built on a foundational comprehension of the value and significance of freedom.
Such comprehension, to the extent that it has taken hold, has been the result not of deliberate designs, but of the slow evolution of ideas. So while libertarians such as Tucker actually shared Sachs’s view that the problem of systematic, extreme poverty is neither unavoidable nor insurmountable, he also appreciated the less obvious truths implied by poverty’s man-made, political character; if poverty is not simply the natural result of economic law — if indeed at this point in history it is a creation of class legislation and politics — then no amount of planned reformism can destroy it. Instead only economic activity completely free from coercive control can end poverty. And that dissolution of the malignant link between the political and the economic must take root in individual minds before it can culminate in genuine societal change.
In a passage illustrative of the inevitable pitfalls of top-down schemes for development, Munk describes the working relationship between the Millennium Project’s local team in East Africa and management back in New York. The local team, Munk writes, “started to bad-mouth the executives in New York. Sachs and his deputy, John McArthur, were ‘imperial’ and ‘arrogant.’ ‘They ask no questions, they solicit no information,’ said one frustrated manager when I passed through Nairobi. ‘It’s just one long monologue from New York — orders given to be executed by us. They are utterly out of touch with what is actually going on.’” Under the banner of philanthropy and “the end of poverty,” Sachs and his project brought a command-and- control economy to people who neither understood nor wanted it.
While, as Munk relays, Sachs is known for having brought market reforms to post-Soviet Poland through what came to be called “shock therapy,” his preferred political economy is anything but laissez faire. It was Sachs’s work advising government officials — rather than his scholarly achievements as a Harvard academic — that secured his reputation as something of a hotshot, a celebrity intellectual. Sachs’s “shock therapy,” Munk explains, entailed “huge cuts in government spending, massive layoffs of state employees, the end of fixed gasoline prices, a complete overhaul of the tax system, and above all, an abrupt shift to a free-market-based economy.” Given his advice along these lines to Bolivia and Poland, we might be tempted even to glimpse a libertarian bent in Sachs, at least an underlying trust in markets. Addressing the apparent contradiction between “the former Dr. Shock [and] the new, humanitarian persona,” Munk notes that “Sachs himself sees no conflict,” describing himself as a “clinical economist.” In this capacity, Sachs is, he imagines, an “emergency physician” who prescribes economic medicaments on the basis of the particularities of the diagnosis. His fundamental philosophy, he insists, has remained constant; seeming differences in approach are thus attributable to the differences between the patients and their needs. Poland required one treatment, Kenya another.
Not a thing at all
Whatever his vision of himself, Sachs is deeply fascinated by the practice of political power and its relationship with economic development. In a 2009 feature for Time magazine, “The Case for Bigger Government,” Sachs made explicit his view of the relationship between state and economy, a view that makes government a “partner … of the private sector.” With the exhortation, “We need more government,” Sachs pits his proposals — using a familiar bit of sleight of hand — against the extreme limited government and free market that we are thought to have in the United States today. Reading Sachs’s hopes for “government to expand its share of GDP,” one wonders how much more government the United States could possibly have. In urging “a smartly rebalanced partnership between the public and private sectors,” Sachs is less visionary trailblazer than he is stale, stock progressive, a quintessential example of the Progressive Era ideas that in fact still dominate all of American politics across both parties.
Advancements in science and industry at the end of the 19th century led elites and intellectuals to believe that an efficient economy could be deliberately constructed, tailored for rationality, and adjusted to avoid the perceived disorder and destruction of competition. Certainly if railways, canals, and steam engines could improve efficiency and productivity, so too could the right authorities lay plans for an optimum economic arrangement. But an economy (or economic development, as the case may be) is a thing rather unlike a steam engine, continuously expanding and contracting, moving and changing, its variables countless; indeed, an economy is no thing at all. To understand it is to appreciate that attempts to control its fluctuations using laws, regulations, or edicts — i.e., coercive authority — is to stunt or destroy entirely those of its features that we should most desire to preserve.
Like Sachs, the progressives thus misunderstood the science, rationality, and progress that were ostensibly so central to their philosophy; their efforts at social and economic engineering were not genuinely scientific at all, but were a bastardization of science, a misreading of its principles. Jeffrey Sachs represents just that kind of hubristic delusion, the firm belief that social relations, economies, governments, etc. can and should be crafted and tweaked into some ideal, achievable form. And of course, these intricate designs must always bear the imprimatur of scientific expertise, thereby granting the experts — people such as Sachs — enormous power.
Nina Munk’s book The Idealist offers us a vivid picture of the vaingloriousness and conceit of elite power, of the fact that economic development as we know it is not just a matter of dollars and cents, but also of culture and ideas. History, it turns out, is not so easy to bend, society not so susceptible to being manipulated and molded like clay. While progressivism, with its symbioses between economic players and the state, offers plenty of populist rhetoric, it in fact harms and hobbles the poor wherever we find it. Unintended consequences reverberate out from every attempt at centralized control. The end of poverty may come around yet, but it won’t be due to the machinations or grand plans of colluding elites; instead it will be from the adaptability that inheres in a society built on the principles of individual sovereignty and free, competitive exchange.
This article originally appeared in the August 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.