Countries’ social institutions take time to mature

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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.

Something different on a Friday – Bonobo apes

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This is an unusual post for me, but I hope you enjoy this Ted video where Susan Savage-Rumbaugh introduces the Bonobo ape.  As a kid I used to read a lot of science fiction and one passage that has always stayed with me described a future earth where humans wandering through the forest saw chimps and monkeys making fires and using stone tools.  Incredibly we see a lot of that and more from the Bonobo in this video.


  • from about 5.45 using a lighter to make fire
  • from 9.30 knocking two stones together to make a ‘knife’
  • from 11.20 using chalk to write a symbol to say where she wants to go
  • from 14.05 playing musical instruments

Quite amazing.

Thanks to Jof Arnold who pointed me towards this video at the end of a very stimulating lunch discussion yesterday.

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