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.