The Myth Of Dr Williams


That Dr Eric Williams was the creator of Trinidad’s society is an article of faith among commentators, including his critics. “Whatever one may think of Dr Williams,” writes former insurgent Raffique Shah in his Sunday Express column (25/09/11), “what is indisputable is that he is a foundation pillar of modern Trinidad and Tobago.” Political analyst Selwyn Ryan, the country’s leading expert on Williams, similarly claims in the same edition that “few would disagree that Williams was the architect and builder of the state of Trinidad and Tobago.”
Such assertions, however, can only be statements of faith, neither more nor less than the claims that Jesus was resurrected, that God incarnates in human form, or that Muhammad was a prophet. What Ryan and Shah and anyone else who makes similar claims about Williams are saying is that T&T would have been significantly different if Williams had not become Chief Minister in 1956. And how can they prove such a counter-factual?
Intuitively, though, this objection seems nonsensical. After all, isn’t it obvious that since, for four decades, Williams directed the policies of T&T, that the society would have been very different, whether better or worse, than it is today? However, this is exactly the problem. As sociologist Duncan J. Watts writes in his book Everything is Obvious, “Historical explanations…are neither causal explanations nor even really descriptions…Rather, they are stories…stories that are constrained by certain historical facts and other observable evidence. Nevertheless, like a good story, historical explanations concentrate on what’s interesting, downplaying multiple causes, and omitting all the things that might have happened but didn’t. As with a good story, they enhance drama by focusing the action around a few events and actors, thereby imbuing them with special significance or meaning.”
So, in a 2009 article, Ryan went so far as to assert that “Williams left Trinidad and Tobago better than he found it in 1956.” He offered no proof for his opinion, content to rely on the weight of his own authority. He did not even make a comparison between T&T in 1956 and T&T in the 21st century to prove his large claim. When I looked at the statistical data, however, it seemed that the proof spat out Ryan’s pudding. Using three basic measures of societal well-being – infant mortality, illiteracy, and crime rates – I compared Trinidad in 1956 to Trinidad in 1981, when Williams died. Then, in order to decide whether Williams’ policies were the cause of any changes, I checked to see if any changes reflected pre-1956 trends, or if the changes were a departure. (See Box 1.)
The former appeared to be the case – i.e. the secular trends were largely the same pre- and post-1956. Ryan has never refuted these data, either because he finds them too trivial, too absurd, or too irrefutable. However, the data do not necessarily disprove the weaker assertion that Williams created modern Trinidad. Consider, however, the weight which rests on that assertion. It would mean that this one individual determined the values, attitudes, beliefs, and institutions of the nation. This, of course, is the Great Man theory of history which, as that discipline has become more sophisticated, has largely abandoned such ideas. And it is to history we must first look to see if this article of faith has any basis.
If T&T has taken a significantly different path to other developing countries, one might reasonably attribute this to leadership (though not exclusively Williams’ leadership). Ryan in his Sunday Express column writes of Williams: “On the credit side of the ledger, one also has to place the heroic achievement of Point Lisas and the national energy sector.” Again there are the assumptions that (a) the energy sector would not have developed in the same way without Williams; (b) that the policies instituted were the best possible; and (c) that an energy policy would have been less productive without Williams. In this context, Ryan’s assertion is clearly unprovable, but there are also alternatives which disprove assumption (b). For example, in a report titled Where is the Wealth of Nations?, World Bank economists have applied a formula called the Hartwick Rule to 30-year data sets to calculate the per capita incomes that oil-rich economies would have had in 2000 if they had saved and invested their oil revenues since 1970, instead of spending it. The authors conclude that, if these countries had saved at even poor country ratios, then in per capita terms “the economies of Gabon, Venezuela, and Trinidad and Tobago, all rich in petroleum, could today have a stock of produced capital of roughly US$30,000 per person, comparable to the Republic of Korea.”

On another front, Williams is often praised for not carrying T&T into the racial morass or political violence that enveloped other post-colonial countries. But British historian Niall Ferguson in his book Empire notes that “nearly every country with a population of at least a million that has emerged from the colonial era without succumbing to dictatorship is a former British colony…This can be attributed to the way that British rule, particularly where it was ‘indirect’, encouraged the formation of collaborating elites; it may also be related to the role of Protestant missionaries, who clearly played a role in encouraging Western-style aspirations for political freedom in parts of Africa and the Caribbean.”
Finally, and fundamentally, we turn to social psychology to answer the question as to whether one individual can be so influential as to be described as the architect of an entire society. After all, even the Americans had seven founding fathers. The “law of the few” holds that one exceptional person, or several such, can cause social epidemics. Using computer simulations, Watts and his colleague Peter Dodds have tested this hypothesis, using the Granovetter model and the Bass model. (Granovetter’s model assumes that individuals adopt something when a certain critical ratio of their peers do; the Bass model assumes that influence is like an infection which spreads along network ties.)
“As it turned out, the most important condition had nothing to do with a few highly influential individuals at all,” Watts writes. “Rather, it depended on the existence of a critical mass of easily influenced people who influence other easy-to-influence people. When this critical mass existed, even an average individual was capable of triggering a large cascade…Conversely, when the critical mass did not exist, not even the most influential individual could trigger any more than a small cascade.”
This suggests that, rather than transforming Trinidadian society, Williams at best catalysed existing tendencies. But as long as intellectuals and commentators focus on ad hominem analyses, they would fail to understand our history and our society in ways which can bring about the changes we so urgently need.

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