Beyond the Ignorance Hypothesis

One of the most influential books for me during my studies was Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Acemoglu and Robinson take a largely linear and historical approach to explain world inequality, with a focus on how politics and political processes are the root of major differences in poverty, prosperity, and economic growth throughout the globe.

Most interesting to me was the authors’ debunking of the ignorance hypothesis early in the book. The ignorance hypothesis asserts that world inequality exists because we or our rulers do not know how to make poor countries rich. This idea is the one held by most economists – that poor countries experience market failures and economists and policymakers alike do not know how to eliminate them. In contrast, rich countries have succeeded in eliminating these market failures. Common perception is that leaders of developing countries, African leaders in particular, have mistaken views of how to run their countries, resulting in gross economic mismanagement. For Acemoglu and Robinson, ignorance is at best a small part of world inequality (64). According to Acemoglu and Robinson, “Poor countries are poor because those in power make choices that create poverty. They get it wrong not by mistake, but on purpose” (68). The motivation can be self-enrichment, maintenance of power, or both.

As their scope is global in nature, it is expected that Acemoglu and Robinson disregard major socioeconomic inequalities that exist within the developed countries that have ostensibly gotten it right. However, while such inequalities are beyond the scope of Why Nations Fail, I do believe the ignorance hypothesis can apply (at least roughly) to intrastate inequalities — that poor people in rich countries are poor largely because those in power, for reasons of expediency, make choices that create poverty. Ignorance, I argue, is at best a small part of systemic inequality in Canada and the United States.

In taking that position, I find myself in opposition to many scholars, social critics, political commentators, and politicians. One such figure is Conrad Black, a British-Canadian who once controlled the world’s third largest English-language newspaper empire and founded Canada’s National Post. In a National Post full comment (and reply to Stephen Maher) published in June, 2015, Black minimizes the irreparable cultural damage done to First Nations and Indigenous peoples by the Canadian residential school system. He also writes that “However mistakenly and patronizingly conceived and at times barbarously executed, the authors of the residential schools program, starting with John A. Macdonald, imagined they would be benignly solving the problems of the native people.”

So that is the story Black chooses to tell about Canada’s residential school system. This story will certainly resonate with many Canadians and the ignorance hypothesis is clearly visible at its centre. The Canadian government’s consistent undermining of Indigenous peoples’ self-determination; the “third world” conditions of many reserves; overrepresentation of Indigenous youths and adults in the criminal justice system; unequal access to healthcare and education; persistent barriers to employment; and the discrimination against First Nations welfare recipients on reserves — invoking the ignorance hypothesis, each of these examples of disenfranchisement and marginalization of Indigenous peoples may be regarded as unfortunate problems we have not yet learned to solve. However, I am more inclined to believe these conditions result from a deliberate and systematic effort by the Canadian federal and provincial governments to undermine the economic and political strength of First Nations and Indigenous peoples in order to weaken their land claims and their financial claims to Canada’s resources.

The ignorance hypothesis is a very powerful tool in our society. It encourages people to look for band-aid solutions to what appear to be discrete problems rather than attempt to strike down the complex institutional structures and norms at the root of these problems. Thomas King might say  that the ignorance hypothesis is a convenient story we tell ourselves. It is, I believe, a form of optimism, rooted in our desire to believe in good intentions. The most effective public intellectuals to me are those who resist the lure of the ignorance hypothesis and move towards more institutional and structural theories.


Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. Print.

Black, Conrad. “Conrad Black: Canada Is Afflicted By A Pandemic Of Defective Moralizing On Native Issues.” National Post. 13 Jun. 2015. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.


Reactions to the U.S. Presidential Election

My reaction to the start of the U.S. presidential election season, observing from a comfortable distance


All the Republican candidates ingratiating themselves to their publics

by dissing Obama — it’s all about the main man and haters gon’ hate


All the Republicans crammed onto that damned stage…the delusion


The level of discourse in the Republican debates


Carly Fiorina and the baby parts underground economy,

Ted Cruz and the plan to carpet bomb ISIS,

Ben Carson and the Egyptian grain silos,

Donald Trump and the Muslim registry…


Jeb Bush throughout the course of the least spirited

presidential campaign in U.S. history


Realizing Bernie can actually beat Hillary


Hillary realizing Bernie can actually beat her and preparing for battle


Hillary winning Iowa and media commenters saying Bernie won anyway


Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy


Hillary saying she’ll be tough on Wall Street


Bernie saying the solution to race relations is eliminating tax cuts to billionaires


People preferring zero chance of change — Hillary

over the (arguably) negligible chance of change — Bernie


Trump being scared of Megyn Kelly


Trump and Cruz finally turning on each other


The embarrassing softballs at Trump’s town hall


Knowing that if a Democrat gets elected,

there’s an extra Supreme Court seat for her/him to fill


Knowing that if a Republican gets elected,

there’s an extra Supreme Court seat for him to fill


With all this excitement, would I want to be in the States right now,

up close to the action?






Challenges for Women Intellectuals

I recently read an article by Mary Eagleton called “Nice Work? Representations of the Intellectual Woman Worker.” While the article elided many of my concerns about the struggles ethnic minority women face as aspiring or developing intellectuals (a topic I hope to explore in a future post focusing on black women intellectuals), there were a few points that helped me to reflect critically on the ways in which manifestations of gender and gendering within the higher education system can stymie women’s efforts to become intellectuals.

Eagleton references Joan Riviere’s essay, “Womanliness as Masquerade” and Riviere’s theory that some intellectual  women who exhibit the traditionally masculine traits of  being “clever, educated, [and] highly competent” (Eagleton 205) resort to masks of femininity to cope with the anxiety that accompanies facing a potentially critical or hostile male audience. Paraphrasing Riviere, Eagleton writes that “One [woman] is inappropriately flirtatious, another hides her expertise and suggests that all her correct comments are just ‘lucky guesses’, [and] a third becomes ‘flippant and joking'” (qtd. in Eagleton 205).

***Note: See Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as Masquerade.” Formations of Fantasy. Eds. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1929. 34-44.

While I find some of the particulars of Riviere’s mask of femininity outdated, I was surprised by the relevance of her general ideas about the anxiety women intellectuals can face in front of male audiences. I think it is telling that some of the gender dynamics Riviere explored about 85 years ago are so visible in today’s institutions of higher education. As an example, I would like to relay my subjective observations of one of my undergraduate courses in international security.

The tutorial for my international security class was made up of about twenty five people, with a roughly even split between women and men. We were encouraged to use international relations theory as a framework to discuss strategies for international security. I noticed a trend at the time that reflectivist international relations theories, such as constructivism, feminism, critical theory, and postcolonialism, were feminized and devalued compared to rationalist and positivist schools of thought like realism and liberalism, which are the most mainstream theories for the study of international politics and institutions. It was normal in my tutorial for men to dominate the discussion and stress rational choice and game theory as a way of understanding international security, and for women, speaking less often and less assertively, to draw attention to the ways in which security interests and threats are socially constructed. The male teaching assistant for the tutorial, along with much of the male cohort, consistently favoured the former perspective with more credence than the latter, while the female cohort tended to lend a more equal weight to both perspectives.

The idea of such a classroom as a site that reproduces gendered patterns of power, privilege, and hierarchy was not a new insight for me on reading Eagleton’s article. What was more interesting to me was the insight that intellectual women struggle in large part due to the lack of cultural history of the woman intellectual. Eagleton writes,

Though there are many biographies of individual intellectual women, usually couched in terms of the exceptional genius, studies which problematise women’s relation to intellectualism and to an intellectual history are, even today, not thick on the ground. It is the male intellectual who is named or, when commentators speak abstractly of ‘the intellectual’, the figure is conceived in masculine terms. Moreover, women are not the implied readers in texts about the role of the intellectual and they have to struggle to find a position which might include their experience. (211)

Going back to my international security tutorial, I believe that a significant part of the dynamic, particularly the difficulty women faced in asserting their views, was rooted not just in the general manifestation of male privilege, but more specifically in the fact that women had a relatively very small background of women’s political intellectual history to draw on to bolster confidence in their claims. It is easy to understand why women would have anxieties presenting their views in such a context.

It is important to note that the classroom dynamic I described above was something of an outlier during my undergraduate degree. Gender dynamics in my classes were not usually so fraught. However, across all disciplines and levels of higher education, such a dynamic is all too common. I wonder how many women will be able to emerge from these institutions confident that their voices will be heard, that their perspectives are valid and valued, and that they have something unique and meaningful to add to the analysis of current issues as potential public intellectuals? I venture to say, not nearly enough.


Eagleton, Mary. “Nice Work? Representations Of The Intellectual Woman Worker.” Women’s History Review 14.2 (2005): 203-222. Web.

Two Calls for American Revolution

In this post, I would like to share my thoughts on two very different, but related, calls for revolution in the United States of America.

The first call for revolution comes from Bernie Sanders, junior United States Senator for Vermont, longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history, and current candidate for Democratic nomination in the 2016 Presidential election. Sanders is a spirited and exciting man who strives to revive the American middle class and mobilize average Americans against corporations and the wealthy, whose powerful interests dominate American political, social, and economic life. Obviously, these are lofty goals, made even loftier by context — Sanders is a proclaimed socialist in a country where socialism has been a nothing short of a bugbear for at least a century.

Sanders does not use the word revolution lightly, and if he has one strength, it is that he fully grasps the magnitude of the social, political, and economic shifts he is trying to advance. I admire Sanders’ stalwart position as political outsider and support many of his policy prescriptions; however, I have great difficulty believing that a United States that looks to propel Ted Cruz or Donald Trump (but perhaps Marco Rubio) to leadership of the Republican party will be capable of sustaining a revolution strong enough to achieve any meaningful socialist aims. A revolution that can challenge the seemingly indomitable and impossibly wealthy interests Sanders stands against would have to go far beyond partisanship and truly unite the common people across ethnic, socioeconomic, and party lines. Like I said, I have my doubts. If Sanders wins the nomination, it would be quite a battle for the Presidency, but if he were to win the Presidency, only then would the war begin in earnest. We shall see.

The second call for revolution comes from Michelle Alexander. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Alexander uses a sociological, historical, and legal framework to argue that mass incarceration, as a function of the criminal justice system, is a form of social control imposed on black Americans to maintain racial hierarchy (11). Alexander asserts that mass incarceration is the direct descendant of Jim Crow in its patterns of subordination, segregation, and economic and social marginalization of black and brown men. The following excerpt provides her prescription for dismantling this system:

…the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the concomitant cultural shift would never have occurred without the cultivation of a critical political consciousness in the African American community and the widespread, strategic activism that flowed from it. Likewise…a new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society if we hope ever to abolish the New Jim Crow. This new consensus must begin with dialogue…a prerequisite of effective political action. (15)

You may think that I am reaching by positing that Alexander’s prescription to break down the New Jim Crow is tantamount to revolution, but hear me out: Creating a critical political consciousness, engaging in strategic activism, and forming a major social movement that leads to a permanent cultural shift — these pieces do appear to add up to revolution, which can be defined as “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favour of a new system” (Google Dictionary). Dismantling the social order of racial hierarchy in the United States would be nothing short of revolutionary action.

It is promising, then, to see Black Lives Matter (BLM) make such strong strides as a black liberation movement that focuses on highlighting and fighting the racial disparities in the United States’ criminal justice system. While I believe that part of BLM’s strength derives from its decentralization, I think the organization’s effectiveness in the U.S. could improve by promoting a central rallying point of political activism: mass incarceration and its effects on the black community. Following Alexander’s line of thinking, the militarization and violent impunity of the police, the exploding prison system, the racialized legal system, and the economic and social marginalization of disproportionately black felons — all these dots and many more must be connected by BLM in order to achieve maximum salience within the black community and its leadership, and in American society as a whole.

Sanders and Alexander are both calling for revolutions to dismantle powerful systems that are taken for granted in American society: a disturbingly lopsided class structure and a heinous and destructive racial hierarchy. The support that Bernie Sanders has received and the efforts of Black Lives Matter are seeds of promise that I hope to see sown and reaped.


Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.