This blog post provides insights from what I have come to call the legal political economy perspective to critique the World Bank and neoclassical economics more generally. At the heart of what has been called the World Bank’s Third Moment in Law and Development is the claim that government involvement is necessary to eliminate “market failures” and promote both business development and social justice.
In contrast to the mainstream Law and Economics (L & E) approach, which informs the Third Moment, my position, derived from the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) tradition (and its historical ancestor, Legal Realism), is:
- Property is fundamentally a bundle of rights and thus property ownership at its core entails coercive power struggles between rivals and between owners and non-owners; coercion at its core.
- The interrelatedness of law and power relations (“If the program of Realists was to lift the veil of legal Form to reveal living essences of power and need, the program of the Critics is to lift the veil of power and need to expose the legal elements in their composition” (Gordon 1984, 109)). These power struggles over economic outcomes occur within the context of background laws that determine property, contracts, and torts.
- The notion of an economic seesaw in Hale’s framework with potential for instability in property and contractual relations.
- If the goal is to understand how legal structures shape power struggles then the question becomes how are the laws themselves to be determined? Following the CLS perspective, I would emphasize the role of ideational factors determining the intellectual underpinnings of neoliberal policies—factors that have consciously been created by the financiers of the L & E tradition.
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‘As a step toward that ideal it seems to me that every lawyer ought to seek an understanding of economics. The present divorce between the schools of political economy and law seems to me an evidence of how much progress in philosophical study still remains to be made. In the present state of political economy indeed, we come again upon history on a larger scale, but there we are called on to consider and weight the ends of legislation, the means of attaining them, and the cost.’ (Oliver Wendell Holmes; 1897) 
The World Bank’s policy focus shifted in the 1990s from a market-oriented paradigm to other issues such as social justice, poverty reduction and “market failures”, where institutions had to play a greater role . Known as the Post-Washington Consensus or the Third Moment in Law and Development, this new paradigm emphasizes the importance of “good governance”, the implementation of property rights for economic growth, and makes the following proposition: well-defined and formalized property rights lead to market efficiency, economic growth and development. Hence, since then the establishment of the “rule of law” has become the new goal to reach for developing countries.
However, this Law and Economics paradigm relies on a narrow set of theoretical assumptions and is heavily influenced by neoclassical views of the state, the market and overall competition. But this framework raises some questions: (a) are these assumptions empirically valid, namely is the implementation of property rights a necessary condition for economic growth and development? And (b) are “perfect competition” and “market failures” reliable concepts one should start from to cope with development – if by such term we mean a social and economic process that will ultimately increase human well being?Read More »
Morten Jerven, image via Wikimedia
Development economics as a field of study was formally launched in the 1950s by the Afro-Caribbean economist Arthur Lewis who, out of necessity, wanted to understand how his own country, Saint Lucia, could transform from an agro-based economy into a modern industrial state (later, in 1979, Lewis was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for this work, the only black person to have won the prize to date). For Lewis, the key to providing a satisfactory answer to the problem of underdevelopment lay in studying those societies as they were and not in comparing them to some mythical ideal. Saint Lucia, like all developing countries, had a lot of underemployed labor in its agricultural sector. The question was how best to marshal this valuable resource into driving industrialization.
Sadly, development economics has moved away from Lewis’ pioneering contribution of studying poor countries on their own terms. For example, today’s development economists explain Tanzania’s lack of development as stemming from its inability to be more like Sweden. This way of studying development, termed the “subtraction approach”, has led us down a dark alleyway where there is more confusion than elucidation. That, at least, is the charge leveled by economic historian Morten Jerven in his book Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong published in 2015, but still circulating and prompting debate in academia and amongst practitioners.
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What is development economics? The answer will undoubtedly vary widely depending on whom you ask. I’ve said that this blog aims to take a critical approach to development economics, but what does that mean?
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By Douglas McDonald [re-blog from NSER]
Last Friday was the Debating Development conference, organized by the titular scholars of INET’s Young Scholars Initiative, a group coordinated by NSSR’s own Ingrid Kvangraven. The conference put many scholars of different regions and different theoretical perspectives in conversation. Although it was titled “debating development,” as NSSR economics professor Sanjay Reddy noted in his opening remarks, most of the perspectives presented were more intersecting than mutually exclusive, so the conference could also be understood as a means to compound or complexify perspectives, rather than adopt or discard them.
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By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven
Being an Economics PhD student in a heterodox department gives me the privilege of taking courses in a range of different schools of thought within the discipline. In the Economics department, most of us take the stance that it is imperative to understand the mainstream in order to criticize them effectively. We go to great lengths to learn about the nuances of Neo-classical Economics, general equilibrium theory, and New-Keynesian Economics. Meanwhile, we also have full courses devoted to non-mainstream approaches, such as Post-Keynesian and Marxian Economics. We are aware of the ideological underpinnings of a lot of mainstream theory, and many of us see this as a motivation to challenge the discipline.
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