The Locust Effect (Haugen & Boutros)

I was hoping to find real insight in this book. I didn’t. Not because the authors are not well-informed—they are very well informed about their topic. Nor because the authors are not well-intentioned—they are very well-intentioned. Nor do they appear to be wrong about most or all of their facts. But despite all their effort, coupled with constant and justified moral indignation and calls for global justice, they fail to confront the real reasons and solutions for the problem they outline.

The problem they outline is that violence is endemic in the undeveloped world, and that violence affects mostly the poor, among other things keeping them poor. Violence against the poor stays endemic without a functioning justice system, which these countries lack. The authors’ main point is that you cannot correct poverty without first reducing this violence against the poor (they fortunately seem to reject out of hand the silly contention that poverty itself causes the violence), by creating a functioning justice system. So far, so good. Few people would dispute this analysis.

But while the authors focus on violence, with numerous tragic anecdotes, violence is merely the product of the real problem. To their credit, they do identify the real problem, but then focus exclusively on violence, not the cause of the violence, which makes their argument more emotionally compelling but less logical. The real problem, of course, is that the rule of law does not hold in most undeveloped countries—primarily in Africa, but also poor countries in South America (Brazil, Peru) and South Asia (Bangladesh).

This is not surprising, since the rule of law is essentially an old European concept, imported occasionally and tenuously, and only recently, into non-European cultures, which is what all undeveloped countries have. Arbitrary rule by the powerful has been the norm in most societies throughout history. The West has escaped this. In essence, Haugen and Boutros point out with emotion and vigor what is obvious to anyone in the abstract—in a Hobbesian society, only those with money or power, which in such societies are really the same thing, receive justice. Everyone else cannot get the police to be interested in them, other than as prey; cannot get judges to administer justice; and cannot get the prison system to be anything but abusive—because there is no rule of law.

The rule of law isn’t just criminal justice, although that’s the nearly exclusive focus of the authors. It’s also, and critically for economic development, the security of property against arbitrary imposition by the powerful (though the authors do touch on this). And, finally, the rule of law in a just society requires allowing the use of weapons by private citizens for self-defense, which mitigates the violence of the powerful against the weak (as they said of Sam Colt, he made all men equal). Lack of the rule of law means not just no real justice system—it also means no functioning health system for the masses, no functioning higher level agriculture system that spreads technology (because of no credit and a disincentive to risks), and no education system.

In all the societies focused on by the Haugen and Boutros, such rule of law is essentially totally absent. Violence against people is merely the most dramatic manifestation of a problem that more generally creates a defective society that is unable to develop is any meaningful way. None of this is news, although the authors seem to think it is. This has all been a commonplace of Western thought since the ancient Greeks.

While admirable to point out, and something that should be decried as any injustice, that lack of the rule of law creates bad societies is not news. Crappy societies have always been crappy. How to uncrapify an inferior society when it’s always been crappy is the Big Question. But all these societies focused on by the authors are deficient across the board, not just in their justice systems. Their economies have not developed, any more than has the rule of law. They mostly produce little or nothing of value culturally and per capita income is tiny. This confluence of crappiness is not coincidence. In essence nobody with any historical sense can deny that undeveloped societies are backward through some combination of bad culture, bad organizations, and bad luck, though the weight of each factor varies. Absence of the rule of law is just another manifestation of being a backward culture overall.

The authors place considerable stock, in hoping for future improvement, in that justice systems in the West (i.e., the developed world) used to be deficient by our modern standards. They exaggerate this, though—of their five examples of deficiency, rolled out with great fanfare, all five are from the late 19th century, all five are from urban or industrial areas, and three are from the United States. A broader perspective would show these to be outriders resulting from a period of extreme population growth in certain areas, coupled with rapid social change. Colonial America, for example, had excellent rule of law. It’s simply not true that in, for example, any Western country the rule of law has permanently been as absent as the countries the authors profile, probably since Roman times. Certainly an Englishman of the 14th Century could generally expect the rule of law—not perfectly, perhaps, and subject to periods of lawlessness during warfare. But much more so than, apparently, a modern Peruvian.

However, just because, as the authors say, “it’s been done before,” by which they mean by the West, doesn’t mean it will be done by modern undeveloped countries. It doesn’t mean the undeveloped world is on that track, any more than that the undeveloped world is on the track toward economic modernization. More likely it’s just another example of the Great Divergence—part of the world, us, keeps getting better, and the rest of it improves in places, but relatively speaking falls farther behind. Why that is, is another question with plenty of speculation to be found.

The authors believe that economic development assistance to the developing world would work, but that it can’t until the rule of law is established. The necessity of the rule of law to economic development is an ancient truism the authors seem to think they’ve discovered. But the authors have no solution as to how improvements in the rule of law can be made in a country by external forces, other than paeans to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar high-sounding statements and efforts that have exactly zero impact on the undeveloped world, except as a way for those outside that world to feel good about themselves, and for people in power inside the undeveloped world to winkle money from the first group by mouthing platitudes that make them seem worthy of receiving more cash. The reality is that unless these countries want the rule of law, and have developed enough to have money to spend on a real justice system, they are not going to have the rule of law or a high functioning justice system in the modern sense. All the feel-good NGOs in the world will never make a difference otherwise.

Haugen and Boutros bizarrely simultaneously blame and absolve colonialism for the lack of the rule of law in the non-developed world. They argue that in places like India, colonial justice was designed to protect the colonists—administered in the language of the colonists, not used to serve the public, not interested in solving crimes, and so forth. This is dubious history—in India, for example, their main example, almost all of the justice system remained in the same local hands it always had, since there were very few British at all, and they only administered high level justice (like banning the traditional Indian practice of suttee, forced burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres).

But let’s assume that it’s true that colonial justice lacked the rule of law for the common people and that these countries inherited that problem. The authors then note that none of these countries have changed anything about their justice systems after colonialism. Apparently that’s the fault of colonialism too—not just in countries where a new authoritarianism replaced the old, but in democracies like India. Finally, they then proceed to admit, contrary to everything they’ve been arguing for pages, that “Colonialism does not, of course, explain everything about the brokenness of justice systems in the developing world. Indeed, there are some developing countries that were never fully colonized—e.g., Ethiopia and Thailand—and yet still struggle to provide the poor with functioning law enforcement, and it does not suggest that the pre-colonial justice systems in the developing world were any more effective in protecting the poor and weak from violence (generally they were not).” So apparently colonialism is irrelevant to the point at hand after all. And we’re back where we started.

In any case, Haugen and Boutros shrink from the obvious conclusion to all their analysis—if these problems are to be fixed, it is up to the societies that have those problems, not to us. There is nothing we can do. A society that has no rule of law is not going to have rule of law imposed from without. The same causes that result in no rule of law probably drive economic lassitude, over which we have equally no control, as shown repeatedly by the trillions thrown down the rathole of direct economic aid over the past decades, eaten up to no effect by elites and dictators. To a society that shows an actual willingness to improve its justice system, we can provide help through demonstrating systems of administration, as we did to post-Communist Eastern Europe with great success, or simply by being an example of how it can be done. Otherwise we are merely a voice crying in the Hobbesian wilderness.

The only example of (very narrow) success given by the authors, Georgia, simply proves that these countries need to help themselves, not that there is hope for most countries. Georgia apparently had considerable success reducing police corruption. Leaving aside that police corruption is only a small part of the overall puzzle of the rule of law, Georgia has close ties to the West, and the only reason there was any change was because of popular demand in an actual democracy that had enough money to actually have a functioning justice system. That doesn’t give much hope for Kenya and Sierra Leone. Creating the rule of law by sending “skilled defense attorneys . . . [as] the key to unlocking the full potential of criminal justice reforms,” and coupling that with “roundtable meetings where defense lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police, and prison officials can engage with one another and identify common ground” is just a pipe dream in societies where everything from child rape to murder is common because the rule of law does not run there. Haugen’s vigorous Christianity (not really mentioned in the book) gives him the optimism and strength to hope for change. That’s compassionate and compelling. And a book like this, focusing people on the problems of deficient societies, certainly can’t hurt. But as with throwing money for development at undeveloped countries, it’s unfortunately unlikely to help.


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