Friday, August 24, 2007

How to Improve Governance

This will be my last post for a while as we are off to Burning Man and then a few weeks of hiking in Utah. What better way to celebrate than to talk about Governance again.

In a comment on my last post, Mike Gallagher suggested that the tools to improve governance are weak. This certainly matches what we have seen in our travels. According to friends we talked to in Guatemala, a group of legal experts from a major US university came down to Guatemala a few years ago to help improve the legal system. After many months and much money spent they gave up in frustration. They had accomplished nothing.

We also encountered a couple of law students in Coban who were working on the war-crimes trial of Rios Monte. Rios Monte was head of the Guatemalan government during the time when some of the worst atrocities of the civil war took place, and many people feel that bringing him to justice would be a big step towards bringing a rule of law to Guatemala. As usual, things are not that simple. It turns out that in the areas like the Ixil triangle where the worst of the fighting occurred, Rios Monte enjoys tremendous popularity to this day. He generally gets about 90% support from the indigenous population, who view him as a hero that helped stop the violence. To many people a war-crimes trial for Rios Monte would be yet another travesty in a long history of injustice.

Governance is not something that can be imposed on a culture. I’ve seen myself in Guatemala, and the world has seen it in Iraq. Governance is something that comes from within, and I believe that ultimately it happens for mainly selfish reasons.

As cynical as it may sound, government is the tool by which the rich and build and preserve their wealth. As a result, when the rich and powerful are a small, closed group we generally end up with some form of authoritarian system. The best way for a small group to get rich is to plunder a country. As long at the dictator funnels enough money to the powerful things generally run fairly smoothly.

When the rich and powerful form a larger group however we generally end up with something more democratic. It is no accident that the wealthiest countries are all democracies. The reason is that the spoils of an authoritarian system are hard to scale. When there are tens of thousands of rich business owners, all of whom want a slice of the pie, it is hard for any central government to keep them all happy simply by plunder. This is not only because corrupt governments can only split the pie so many ways; it is also because corrupt governments stop the pie from growing. At some point there is more money to be made from economic growth than from corruption and as a result there comes a tipping point where the rich and powerful can protect their interests better in a democratic system of government. One day we wake up and realize that we are the wealthy and powerful.

Of course this raises a big question. How do we break the cycle? Bad governance prevents a big middle class from forming, yet as long as there is no big middle class there is little pressure for a better system of government.

I believe that the answer is to put pressure directly on the ruling elites. If the ruling elites are trying to do things that maximize their wealth then it makes sense for us to make it this difficult. For instance, if a country has very high rates of corruption we should not channel any money directly to its government. Or maybe we should go further and restrict access to foreign banks for members of corrupt governments. And when a country opens up its markets we should enthusiastically trade with them so that we can help grow a bigger middle class.

Our system of government may not be perfect, but it’s pretty good. Women are educated, our police are generally helpful, and we are healthy, wealthy, and free to say what we want. It’s in our own best interest to promote it. We are facing a planetary environmental emergency and it’s going to take huge amounts of money and creativity to solve it. If we help Africans get rich and get better governments, then they will stop dumping toxic chemicals and plastic into the ocean. The whole world needs to band together. There is nothing to be gained any more from dealing with corrupt and evil elites. Let’s take the moral high ground and put some pressure on the bastards!

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