Good News Is Not Bad News

Social scientists, historians, and political observers in general agree on one point about the Eastern European revolutions of 1989: no one foresaw them. The collapse of Communist power in Eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, the implosions in the Soviet Union—the end of the cold war, in short—all these developments unfolded in a remarkably short time and as a huge surprise to “experts” and ordinary television viewers alike. But the lesson—that the utmost modesty is in order when it comes to pronouncements about the future of human societies—does not seem to have sunk in. As soon as those astounding changes in the world’s political and economic map took place, numerous voices were heard uttering self-assured opinions about the implications of those changes for this or that country or group of countries. It does not seem to have occurred to these people that if the events, which are the point of departure for their speculations, were so hard to predict, considerable caution is surely in order when it comes to appraising their impact.

Particularly with respect to the less developed countries of the so-called third world—the phrase makes less sense than ever, since there is hardly any political and ideological identity left of what was the “second world,” that is, the Soviet sphere—the tendency to make strong predictions remains. To the most obvious question: Are these events good or bad for the third world? the immediate answer, on the part of most observers, is that they are surely bad. This answer is dictated by a primitive zero-sum model of the social world: anything “good” must have a “bad” equivalent somewhere else. Thus we hear that the third world will suffer from the “revolutions of 1989” because a larger share of supposedly limited amounts of Western capital, entrepreneurship, and, more generally, attention will now flow to the newly opened and newly attractive countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This may be called the “neglect effect” of the European revolutions of 1989 on other regions. In Latin America, and probably elsewhere in the third world as well, the neglect effect is much talked about today. According to many, the period of neglect that is in store for the Latin American continent will inflict further damage on economies that are said to be already burdened by the “lost decade” of the 1980s.

This verdict is surely myopic. In the first place, should the neglect effect to some extent occur, is that all bad? The question makes one think of the “wise and salutary neglect” by the imperial power which, according to Burke, made an important contribution to the economic and political development of England’s American colonies in the eighteenth century. As has occasionally been pointed out, a similar argument can be applied to the relations between the United States and Latin America. During the forty-five years of the cold war, the United States has been intensely, almost obsessively, concerned …

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