Countries’ social institutions take time to mature

By July 2, 2012Other

And now, as Monty Python used to say, for something completely different. Today I’m going to try a bit of political science.

Since I was an undergrad studying social and political science at Cambridge I have held the view that capitalist democracies are like fine wine –they get better with age. As I’m writing I’m temporarily wishing I wasn’t British. Britain is the oldest democracy on the planet and I’m conscious that this post could come across as a piece of intellectual nationalism. It isn’t, and I don’t think that the UK is a better country than many others. I do, however, think that over the last 250-300 years that our capitalist-democracy has been in existence the British public has come to trust that it works for the general good of the country rather than for the individuals at Whitehall and that has given us a stability that is sadly missing in many other countries.

In recent months the lack of trust that Greek voters have in their relatively young democracy and its politicians has made resolving the crisis there more challenging than it would otherwise have been, and one of the greatest tragedies of the last century was installing capitalist democracies in countries that weren’t ready for them. Particularly in ex-commonwealth countries in Africa and in Eastern Europe where democracy slipped into bloody dictatorship.

I’m writing this today having read the following passage in Geoffrey Miller’s Spent which explains why capitalist democracies don’t work without appropriate accompanying social institutions (note that free markets/capitalism and democracy are twinned concepts – you can’t have one without the other):

prosperity requires more than just free markets. First it requires the rule of law: good governance to enforce fair, stable laws regarding property rights, human rights, and social stability … Second, it requires sociocultural traditions of accountability, transparency, morality, and trust in politics and business. Third, it requires behavioural norms of valuing education, ambition, initiative, hard work, politeness, peacefulness, and social networking.

I would posit that all of these requirements improve with the longevity of the capitalist democracy. It takes time to build trust, and the more trust there is the less that cronyism, corruption and other forms of abuse are tolerated.

This line of thinking has important implications for policy in the middle east and Afghanistan, and even for Europe where the key institutions need time to develop legitimacy.

  • Rule of law is essential. However we, even in the UK, have reached a plateau with rough bumps in it. I think not only in Greece which has extreme and completely understandable, even wise (currently), distrust of its politicians, there is a worldwide trend/meme/ebb and sea-change in the amount of trust accorded to government(s) or more importantly using government as a  fairy godmother for all events.

    I really recommend the lectures of Niall Ferguson in his Reith lecture series on the BBC as a quality talking point on this subject – which I imagine you are enjoying too!

    Democracy and capitalism are natural partners, though rule of law is not automatically included in an efficient manner even where both exist.

    I think many of the gripes with government, banks and other seemingly lareg entities will evolve and reach a degree of partial resolution leading to a feeling of renewal and renewed positivity, over the next few years.

    Your mention of the implications for policy in the middle east and Afghanistan sounds right – however I would be inetersted in your more detailed meaning. I think many will make all manner of varied presumptions – which may be what you mean or not. Including me!

    I do want to say finally – well done. You have made good and important points here.

    Best wishes, Roger   

  • Thanks Roger. Post the second world war there was a general feeling, in Europe at least, that government could control everything. That sort of worked in a few places – particularly in Europe, but as the pace of change has increased governments have been unable to keep delivering. Unfortunately they have been slow to realise this and change their promises to the electorate, leading to the increase in distrust.
    As to the implications for policy in the Middle East – that is tough. The first implication is for the developed world to be very wary of intervening as we might make things worse – e.g. Iraq. The second is for everyone to be cognisant of local tradition and not seek to change things too quickly. Democracy emerged very slowly in the UK.

  • Nick

    I agree in both cases.