Economic development is not a simple matter. If it were, the comforts and security of developed economies would be enjoyed by more than one-seventh of the world’s population. Political extremists, especially successful ones, help explain why development has benefited only a minority.
Over the last two centuries, many groups which started out tiny, extreme and persecuted ended up in power. Think of radical socialists in many nineteenth century European nations or the colonial freedom fighters in much of Asia and Africa. The rebels varied in their beliefs and sophistication, but they shared the conviction that the pre-existing social order was irredeemably corrupt. The groups were typically built around a hard core of true believers, with larger groups of fellow travellers and vague sympathisers, some of whom rose to quite high positions.
It is much the same for economic revolutionaries in very poor countries. At first, small bands of devotees emerge. These are people dedicated to the capitalist work ethic – discipline at work, innovation in enterprise and efficiency in production. These dreamers also aim to overthrow the economic arrangements that went before – the feudal hierarchies, economically stultifying social restrictions, aristocratic waste and primitive technology. Economic revolutionaries are invariably more selfish than their political counterparts, but they share the desire to turn everything upside down.
Industrial prosperity has fed the growth of these hard cores over the last few decades. Most poor countries have developed some industries and spawned at least a few billionaires. Nearly everyone in power now claims to be a sympathiser with the capitalist urge. Few speak out directly against industrialisation and economic modernisation.
Still, many countries which have escaped the most wretched poverty seem incapable of moving up to the highest level of prosperity. Only a few have emerged from what economists call the middle income trap. Mario Pezzini of the OECD describes these countries as ones with “a myriad of institutional and socio-economic deficiencies”. There are shortages of trust, skills, law enforcement and honest politicians, while social structures which restrict economic change remain firmly ensconced. In these countries the professional culture which is normal in developed economies remains revolutionary.