The Causes of Human Rights Violations (41): Path Dependence

The theory of path dependence refers to the way in which our current sets of possible decisions are limited by the decisions we have made in the past. The classic example is the QWERTY layout of typewriters and computer keyboards. QWERTY was originally designed to avoid the “hammers” of typewriters interlocking when people type very fast. There’s no reason why computers should still use QWERTY keyboards rather than other layouts that permit easier and more ergonomic typing with less finger movement and less long term health effects, and yet they do. When typewriter users started to get used to QWERTY, switching costs and the cost of learning other systems went up. Consequently, the keyboard became more common, and the more common it became the more useful it became to learn to use it. When more people learned and used it, it became more profitable to sell this keyboard instead of competitors. Office managers worked with people trained in QWERTY and were therefore encouraged to buy QWERTY machines. And so on.

What does this have to do with human rights? Well, it seems to be the case that path dependence is the cause of a number of human rights violations. In an older post, I mentioned a study arguing that present-day poverty can be explained in part by the lingering effects of the slave trade (slavery fostered ethnic fractionalization in Africa and undermined the development of effective government institutions).

Acemoglu and Robinson make a similar claim about colonialism:

[T]he organization of colonial states, though it typically built on absolutist structures, often intensified these structures. … [T]he “Gate-Keeper” state … was designed for extraction and order but not for development or the provision of public goods. All of these ideas rest on some form of path dependence linking the institutional and political strategies of colonialism with those of post-colonial states. Second, the arbitrary way in which the European colonial powers put together very different ethnic groups into the same polities created countries which would be difficult to govern and very conflict prone after independence. Colonialism itself probably intensified notions of ethnicity and made them more rigid. (source)

The path dependence in this case is evident from the reluctance of post-colonial rulers to modify colonial borders even when those borders defy ethnic realities. It’s also evident from the way in which an authoritarian style of government was maintained after independence.

In fact, once you start thinking about it, you see path dependence everywhere. Take for example my native country, Belgium. It’s hardly the worst place in the world for human rights, but it is systematically governed in a bad way, making a mockery of political rights. Demographic minorities and minority interest groups weigh heavily on policies and legislation. The levels of taxation are much higher than justifiable, with negative effects on property rights and incentives. Linguistic minorities are not oppressed but they are often harassed. And I could go on. Add to that the dismal climate and the general ugliness of the country, and you can be forgiven for asking why people still live there. After all, within the European Union, it’s very easy to move to a nicer country. The answer, of course, is path dependence: people know the language, and switching to another language is difficult for many; people’s ancestors are buried there; they have friends and family, and often a good job. That’s alright as far as it goes, but we need to be more vigilant in those areas where path dependence causes significant harm. Of course, the word “dependence” means that it’s often difficult to do something about this harm. But difficult doesn’t mean impossible.

More posts in this series are here.

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