Thinking aslant about development economics

I’m about half way through the biography of Albert Hirschman (

) now, and despite the arm-ache from holding up the book, am enjoying it more than anything I’ve read recently. My interest was particularly caught by an account of a paper Hirschman delivered at a conference at MIT in 1954, “Economics and Investment Planning: Reflections Based on Experience in Colombia” (sadly it seems to be only available as a mimeo, not published anywhere, but if anybody knows differently, please tell me!)

At this time, Hirschman was working for the World Bank and then as an independent consultant based in Bogotá, having been unable to get a job in Washington because of post-war anti-communist paranoia, even though he was anti-communist himself. His biographer Jerry Adelman reports that Hirschman’s paper went down badly with the audience of top academics, as it criticised the academic methodological orthodoxy, and in particular the claim to universality and abstract thinking – albeit applied to competing models of development. This gave rise, he believed, to a (false) presumption of the superiority of the western expert over the locals who understood what was happening in the economy. Hirschman advocated instead using case studies to try to identify which businesses were thriving or not, and a policy emphasis on experimentation and improvisation. He was also unusual in his focus on private investment rather than government planning.

Reading this biography is making me embarrassed to have read so little else by Hirschman over the years. Still, it has set me thinking about development economics. This field seems to me to be in quite good health these days, after decades of suffering as one of the ideological arenas of economics. There have been lots of terrific books published in recent years, including those such as 

riding the wave of field experiments. Still, it is the mavericks of development economics who until recently provided some of the most interesting perspectives. Think of Mancur Olsen’s
, Peter Bauer eg
, Deepak Lal’s 
or even Hernando de Soto’s
, briefly fashionable but academically dissed.

It is as if some economists are not considered by the orthodoxy to write authentically about development, and I wonder if the identification of these writers with right-of-centre political views means the left-of-centre establishment of development economics rejects them? If so, Hirschman seems to have pulled off the combination of the ‘correct’ political identification with a more or less Hayekian methodological approach and – like my other examples – a strongly multidisciplinary flavour. This isn’t my field so I will defer to people who know more, but will be interested in reactions.

As for Hirschman, Adelman writes: “He was not prepared to abandon his views in favor of more acceptable theories.”

[amazon_image id=”0552999237″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Mystery Of Capital[/amazon_image]

Update: Francisco Mejia has pointed out another review of the biography making a similar point:

http://blogs.iadb.org/desarrolloefectivo_en/2013/06/14/hirschman-or-the-years-of-thinking-differently/

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