In Jared Diamond’s New York Times op-ed, he corrects Mitt Romney’s recent mischaracterization of Diamond’s well-known Germs, Guns, and Steel.
It is not true that my book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, “basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth.”
Point well taken; it reasons the author of a book would know best what he meant in his book. Yet, while Diamond criticizes Romney he overlooks an imprecise and debatable assertion in his own op-ed. He goes on to argue that despite some countries’ geographical limitations, they have become richer because “they’ve invested” or “they’ve focused” their economies on more profitable and beneficial sectors:
Some tropical and subtropical countries have become richer despite geographic limitations. They’ve invested in public health to overcome their disease burdens (Botswana and the Philippines). They’ve invested in crops adapted to the tropics (Brazil and Malaysia). They’ve focused their economies on sectors other than agriculture (Singapore and Taiwan).
Diamond suggests that what Botswana, the Philippines, Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan have done right is “they’ve invested” or “they’ve focused” their economy on the right things. This is incredibly imprecise because he fails to explain—who are the “they” and why do “they” get to choose for others what the country will focus on? How does this group know what to focus investments on and be sure they are carried out properly? And if they fail, how are they held accountable? For instance, when economic decision-making is centralized and centered in government, decision makers are less subject to competition.
An important question remains—do the individuals in these societies really need a select group of government bureaucrats deciding how their economies should be focused on their behalf? Should these select few (who are less subject to competition) have such power and control over so many resources to be able to steer an economy? Perhaps, this forced centralization of resources may engender the society’s dependence on government officials who control the resources.
Nevertheless, Diamond overlooks and obfuscates these issues by referring to the ambiguous “they” and assuming the “they” know best.