Sunday, January 16, 2011

Oh to be an anarchist...

One of the challenges of working in Zimbabwe presently is how to talk about policy change/reform/improvement without talking about party politics and how to position your work so that it is seen (as it is in fact) not to have any bias towards the competing parties.

It is like walking on the proverbial egg shells. So, for example, the 'joint government' has numerous policy documents, like the one on small and medium sized enterprises, that, broadly, both 'sides' of the joint government are agreed on yet the policies remain in limbo, sitting in draft form, unimplemented because implementing them may be 'seen' to give advantage to one side or another. Better to do nothing it seems than give advantage to the other side.

It reminds me of the old Serbian joke about the two one-eyed twins. An angel appears before one of them and grants him a wish. The twin considers all the possibilities of advancement before requesting the angel put out his twin's remaining eye!!! Or the Macedonian joke that tells of a visitor to hell who is shown by the devil two pits. From both of which people are struggling to escape. From the first every time a person reaches the edge of the pit a demon comes to push them back in. From the second though the struggle seems equally fierce, no demons appear necessary. "Why the difference?" asks the visitor. "Oh," replies the devil, "the second pit is for Macedonians. Every time one of them reaches the edge of the pit, another Macedonian pulls them back in. No devils necessary!"

Excepting, of course, that in this instance while the parties to the joint agreement are failing to agree (or admitting to and implementing their agreements), the people suffer.

The mechanisms of this failure are what intrigue me because if this struggle for advantage is essentially corrupt and corrupting and about the control of wealth (for one's own advancement), I want to respond by saying 'look about you'! Who in the world are the wealthiest and tend to die peacefully in their beds having conferred their wealth upon their children (rather than eking out their days around a Saudi swimming pool, in exile and dis-empowered, a fate that appears to await the newly deposed President of Tunisia)?

It is the inhabitants of 'democratic states' which, for their many failings, still seem better able to grow and distribute the cake of wealth for their inhabitants more equitably and with greater longer term stability than any alternative system. At which point, no doubt, someone will throw China at me as a counter-example but it is one that remains unproven, especially in the stability stakes, and I fully expect the over-excited proponents of China's 'rise' to be mainly disillusioned over the next 50 years. And if I am wrong about this, which I hope I am, it is because, like Taiwan, China as a whole, has managed a democratic transition.

I suppose it may just be that the dark arts of authoritarian rule (and accompanying rent seeking) simply are different from the multi-coloured arts of creating wealth in an 'open' (if always manipulated) system. Mr Gates may have his dark side but it is of a wholly different order than (insert your authoritarian ruler of choice)! And whereas you could imagine Mr Gates or Carlos Slim (so as not to appear to be picking on one individual) making a reasonable stab at running a democratic state (though I expect it would be an adjustment as corporations are not democracies), you cannot really imagine, say Mr Castro, as the creator of Microsoft or Telemex (and I have deliberately chosen the most gifted authoritarian I could think of here)! Indeed Mr Medvedev (an authoritarian by proxy perhaps) has 'run' a major corporation as the chairman as Gazprom but since this is a virtual monopoly and probably one of the most inefficient energy companies in the world, this probably clinches my case! Authoritarians are, like the hedgehog, only good at one thing - managing power in a closed system.

Contemplating such things does tend to make an 'anarchist' of me - excepting we would probably be exchanging the tyranny of 'structured entities' like the 'state' and 'the market' for the tyrannies of the group (though these might be more intimate and less damaging overall)!

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