Planned Poverty in Failed States

Would a person or a family intentionally choose to be poor? Faced with clear opportunities for economic advancement, would individuals opt for a life of scarcity? Robert Bates argues that this scenario is a common one in failed states.

Before I turn to Bates’ argument, it is helpful to indicate what we are not discussing. First, it is very clear that devout religious adherents from many faiths choose poverty. Some pursue the life of an ascetic; some continually give away their material resources and pursue planned poverty. Second, many poor people have few economic options available to them. Even ardent supporters of free markets can recognize that some persons have greater life chances, even if they are born into poverty. Innate intelligence, social support networks, or good schools can help lift a person from poverty.

In the book When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa, Bates argues that insecurity and uncertainty associated with state failure may lead some to consciously choose poverty. His argument proceeds along a Hobbesian line. Remember the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes? According to Hobbes’ assessment of human affairs, life in a “natural state” – that is, without an organized political community (or state) – is uncertain and miserable. Here is one of the most famous passages from Hobbes’ Leviathan:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

For Bates, a contemporary observer of societies like Somalia, the political context of failed states can be truly Hobbesian. In a context of rampant criminality and intense physical insecurity, it may be preferable to avoid accumulating wealth. Without wealth, a person is less likely to be targeted by robbers or other armed marauders. In short, it is better to preserve life than property. Or, the difficulties of accumulating wealth in a failed state may dissuade many from trying.

For the sake of argument, let’s stick with the example of Somalia, a clear example of a failed state. Critics of Bates could rightly point to a surprising level of commerce and business activity since the fall of the Mohammed Siad Barre government in 1991. Institutions of local government – more or less formalized – have filled some of the gap left by an absence of central government. Even so, physical insecurity and unpredictability have surely convinced many Somalis that planned poverty is a reasonable choice.


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