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Clearly not 'Rational, Calculating Welfare Maximizers'

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Sometimes you see a set of human beings in action and you say to yourself: these are far braver souls than I am. That has been my reaction to the astonishing efforts of thousands of active citizens in countries like Libya, Yemen and  Syria over the last several months. These hardy souls have kept up a struggle for a different set of governance arrangements where they live...knowing full well that each day they participate they are likely to be beaten, arrested or killed. Yet  they have kept it up, day after day, week after week, month after month. In Libya, help came from the skies above, but citizens have still had to do the heavy lifting. They still are.

I am totally in awe of these active citizens. It is easy to mouth phrases like 'citizen participation in governance' in liberal democracies, but here are citizens in your ultimate non-permissive environments...and they are enough of them who are not fazed and are, therefore, able to keep the struggle alive. Thousands of these citizens have been killed. Sadly, many more are likely to be killed.  Yet they keep coming out to push for a country governed differently.

Ask yourself this question: if you lived in one of these countries, would you be one of those out on the streets, keeping the struggle alive? Or would you, to be frank, be too worried about your liberty, your creature comforts, and your life? Would you be saying: who is going to look after my kids if I act so recklessly?

As an anonymous wag once said: A liberal is a revolutionary with children.

I think about these citizens today and salute them. I think about them especially because the world I work in -- international development -- is a world dominated by those whose working theory of a human being is that a human being is a robot ... a rational, calculating welfare maximizer[see this piece by John Kay].

The question, then, is this: what deep well-spring in the human soul prompts a willingness by so many to risk everything in the name of liberty?

Photo Credit: Flickr user syriana2011

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Sina: Like you, I am in awe of, and full of admiration for, the citizens risking their lives to bring about a more accountable government. But you do them and the development profession a disservice by contrasting their behavior from that of welfare maximizing. What these people are seeking, and what we development professionals should be striving for, is an improvement in the welfare of poor people. Indeed, that is what government should be trying to do: provide public goods and correct externalities because private markets, left to their own devices, will not maximize the welfare of the population. The problem is that too many governments have failed to perform this function. The citizens are demanding that government actually perform the function it is supposed to--improve their welfare. Rather than contrast these citizens' behavior with welfare maximization, we should celebrate the fact that they are reminding us of the purpose of government and of development, which is to maximize the welfare of the population. Shanta

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