Sunday, March 6, 2011

End of Poverty and Islam

In his latest op ed, Nick Kristof gives a good argument why Islam is neither the problem nor the solution for the Middle East's economic woes. The article hinges upon a new book by Timur Kuran that shows how specific Islamic legal institutions hindered economic growth. I haven't read the book yet, so I'll focus on Kristof. While he gets the conclusion right, the framing of his argument is incomplete.

He begins with an obvious observation: the Middle East has fallen behind economically from the West. Many often assume that this difference must be caused from something specific about the Middle East. Somehow, something, at some time, went wrong in the region.

Because Islam is the most salient characteristic of the Middle East, it often gets blamed. Kristof rightly dismisses that argument. If Islam were the problem, it's hard to explain why the Middle East used to flourish economically. Moreover, the economic effects of religion varies over time - not only because the economic and political environment changes, but also because religion itself evolves.

But what gets lost in that debate is that perhaps nothing went wrong in the Middle East, but rather, something went right in the West. As Jeffrey Sachs shows in The End of Poverty, standards of living were relatively similar on a global level only a few hundred years ago. But starting with the agricultural revolution, Europe began to shoot ahead. A small growth percentage advantage per year accumulated over several centuries, transforming a small discrepancy into a yawning schism.

The relevant questions are therefore what did Europe do right? Why has it taken the Middle East so long to follow suit? And perhaps the most difficult: are there other ways of getting things right?

None of this suggests Kristof comes to the wrong conclusions. In fact, I think he's completely right. It's just a matter of framing the argment differently.

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