The Wonders of the Wolani
Last night I saw a documentary on the Wolani, an isolated people that live in the uplands of West Papua (Indonesian New Guinea). It was a fascinating documentary that chronicled the struggles of two bands to resolve a dispute between the two of them after a woman from one killed a man from another. I was so interested that I googled Wolani, hoping to find some interesting information.
Instead, I came across The Wonders of the Wolani, a piece of absolute junk. It was written by an “Austrian” economist who insists that the Wolani somehow reflect the beauty of a society without government. Some background is probably necessary when it comes to Austrian economics. Austrian economics the branch of economics that most forcefully insists that markets are as close to perfect as possible; or perhaps more subtlely, that government intervention in the economy is always and everywhere wrong. It is identified most strongly with thinkers such as Hayek and Von Mises. A long time ago it was influential and made some major contributions that are central to modern economics. Today it is marginalized because it is more of a philosophy than a positive theory of economic man. If you don’t believe me, see Bryan Caplan, who is about as sympathetic as you can get while still dismissing Austrian economics rather forcefully. Austrians reject things like doing applied research, and the only reason I can figure out for why this would be is that they would be proven wrong. By avoiding applied research, they can never be proven wrong in the real world. Brilliant!
Now, the problems with The Wonders of Wolani are legion. (1) The first one is what I call the “mercenary economist” problem, by which many economists believe that they can parachute into a developing country, sit in the Ministry of Economics for a week writing down numbers to be analyzed at home, and thereby “figure out” a society. This is extra bad here, because it reveals the idea that one needs only watch a 48-minute television show to figure out the Wolani. Note, for example, that the author thinks that New Guinea is in Africa. (Ouch.) I should note that the mercenary economist problem is not unique to the Austrians, it’s a problem common to most of the profession, and increasingly it is becoming a problem in political science. But the Austrians have a big problem here, since they know that they are right already. There’s no need to learn about a society, because they already know the answer, having uncovered the fundamental truths of mankind already through simply philosophizing. Apparently, not so much.
(2) The first problem leads to the second problem, which is that the author is laughably ignorant about what life is like in West Papua. The idea that West Papua’s normal state of nature is peaceful is simply ludicrous, and has been obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the region. There is a wonderful documentary called “Dead Birds” which shows the Dani people in the 1960s, before the arrival of anything close to government, Dutch, Indonesian, or otherwsie. What we find is a near constant state of brutal intertribal war. So yeah, government isn’t the problem here.
(3) More generally, there is the general problem of ideology trumping dispassionate analysis. As the author writes,
Contra what I regard as popular perception about violence and warfare in such environments, the inter-clan conflict resolution process was remarkably peaceful, orderly, and deliberate.
I have no idea what documentary he was watching. But in the documentary I was watching, mass killings were historically prevalent. The ideology of Austrian economics has apparently led the author to conclude that the state of nature that the Wolani primarily find themselves in is something to be cherished. (As the thinking runs, government is always bad, so if there is no government, it must be good.) There’s an odd similarity here to common perception among insufferable relativists (sophomore anthropology majors) that primitive lives are wonderful. The Noble Savage Myth, as it is called. Only blind allegiance to ideology could make one believe that a part of Indonesia where people still starve to death has actually got it all figured out, and would be best suited by being left alone.
(4) Finally, the lessons the author wants us to draw from the Wolani simply reflect poor social science. Stunning for economics, a discipline that normally prides itself on rigorous research.
1. The power of informal institutions in converting situations of potential conflict into situations of cooperation.
This is silly. Informal institutions always arise absent formal ones. The question is whether the informal institutions are better than the formal ones. Since there *are* no formal institutions to observe here, there’s no basis for this claim.
2. The inability of state-made institutions that conflict with informal institutions to bring about their desired results.
Nearly the same problem. We don’t know if there are state-made institutions, because we only saw informal ones. We do know that the rest of Indonesia has functioning formal institutions, and doesn’t have the same problems that the Wolani face on a day-to-day basis. The inference I’d make is that state-made formal institutions are crucial for mediating conflict.
3. The damage that can be inflicted (in this case, nearly war) when government imposes institutions at odds with the private practices of individuals.
Simple ignorance here combined with faulty research design. He hasn’t looked at the abundant cases (in history, and elsewhere in the region today) where open intergroup warfare is present but where there are no government-imposed institutions. People hardly needed Indonesian currency to find an excuse to kill each other. He wants to claim that the government is the cause of the problem, but he simply doesn’t have the evidence to establish that claim.
(5) Finally, I think that the author’s viewpoint is remarkably internally inconsistent. First we are told that government institutions are the problem, because they conflict with private demands. Then we are told that when people create “informal” institutions that constrain their private demands, this is good. In other words, when people organize politically to create institutions to constrain their demands, it’s good–but we’ve already been told that it’s bad to have these sorts of institutions. You can’t have both. It certainly can’t be the case that writing down a law makes it bad.
When pressed, the author would probably resort to some sort of claim that locally-based institutions are better than nationally-based institutions. So when 1000 people create a law, it’s better than when 100,000,000 make a law. Seems reasonable in a number of circumstances (and there’s certainly good argument that the Indonesian government has been awful to West Papuans–it’s essentially a foreign occupation). I’d be much more sympathetic with this sort of argument.