Evidence now shows that the quality of government is one of the most decisive factors in shaping whether an economy grows or not and it is one of the most decisive factors shaping whether people are happy or not
When governments are overthrown or collapse people feel vertigo and wonder: are we on our way to something markedly better, more open, more responsive to our needs, our hopes and fears? Or will all the dreams be crushed in disappointment as has happened so often in the past?
It became fashionable in the west in recent years to believe that government couldn’t make any positive difference. All hopes were ultimately futile. Nationalism, socialism, Islamism, liberalism: all were bound to end in failure. In any case we were told that real power was moving away from governments out into the market, or into cyberspace, leaving elected politicians as impotent observers. President Clinton’s chief adviser famously said that he would like to be reincarnated as a bond trader since they had the real power.
There are grains of truth in all these views. But fundamentally they are wrong. Evidence now shows that the quality of government is one of the most decisive factors in shaping whether an economy grows or not; it is one of the most decisive factors shaping whether people are happy or not; and one of the most decisive factors shaping whether we live long or short lives. The lowest ever rate of national happiness was recorded in the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s after the assassination of Trujillo at a time of chronic disorder. The highest levels of recorded happiness are generally to be found in stable democracies like Norway, Switzerland and Denmark. It is hard to overestimate the value of strong, stable, protective and legitimate governance to human well-being.
Good governments were ones that protected their people from war or crime, that promoted their welfare and prosperity and that provided their people with fair justice. Bad ones did the opposite
If anyone was in doubt about the continuing relevance of national governments they need only look at what happened in late 2008, when apparently global financial institutions collapsed and went with their begging bowls to national governments, which then had to spend vast sums of money averting the catastrophe which the banks had brought on.
So governments are neither impotent nor irrelevant. Just as important we have learned a lot about what makes governments good or bad. After years working within governments, a few years ago I researched how different parts of the world had thought about good government and was surprised to find how in very different civilisations, and very different periods, people had used surprisingly consistent benchmarks for judging governments.
Good governments were ones that protected their people from war or crime, that promoted their welfare and prosperity and that provided their people with fair justice. Bad ones did the opposite. Now we can judge governments not just by looking at what they do but also by looking at the results: not surprisingly the countries that score highest on safety, welfare and justice, are also ones with stable, democratic governments, and often quite high shares of public spending.
But all governments face temptations. When Nikolai Karamzin, author of the first multi-volume history of Russia, was asked to summarise its message he was able to do so in only two words: ‘they steal’, and the Nobel Prize winning economist Douglass North rightly argued that governments are often ‘in effect, a kleptocracy’. There certainly are tendencies for politicians to line their own pockets and for civil servants to exploit monopoly privileges. But we know how to counter these tendencies just as we know how to counter the tendency of businesses to become collusions against the public. Transparency helps, including publishing all public contracts, including small ones; competition helps too, not just in public tenders but also in party politics. We’ve also learnt the importance of very strict rules on party funding, or to prevent power in one field, like finance or the media, reproducing itself in politics (countries as different as the USA, Russia and Italy greatly underperform because of the lack of adequate controls of this kind). We also know the importance of a strong civil society and media to expose wrongdoers and make it risky to fiddle the rules. And we know the value of a division of labour so that power doesn’t become too concentrated (and its interesting to reflect on Egypt’s Mameluke system as being in part a tool to avoid dangerous concentrations of power in dynasties).
Some of the routes to good government are very ancient. Others are very new. All states today are being shaped by the influence of new knowledge in all its forms (about science, policy effectiveness, social change and public values), and by new connections (that are enabling greater flows of goods, money, ideas and information). Both are contributing to greater complexity in government and furthering new ideas of the state: working less as an agent outside society looking down, and more as a partner working with society both at a national and global level. It’s possible to see a rough progression from governments standing over and against the people, through governments promising to protect people from threats, to governments promising to provide things to the public, to today’s situation where the best governments are trying to learn how to act with the people.
In ancient Sumeria, the oldest government of which we have any records, there was a simple solution: Sumerian kings had their faces slapped once a year by the high priest to remind them of the need for humility
These changes require distinctly new competences (including abilities to act as brokers, entrepreneurs, coordinators), new organisational models (including more horizontal, temporary and task oriented structures), and a new ethos (of service and accountability). Much of my own work in recent years has focused on helping governments to act smarter – making more use of knowledge, acting longer term, and working better with partners across society, from business and universities to NGOs. All of this has convinced me that even the most intractable problems can often be solved. Overall the world has done surprisingly well in extending life, improving education and even, in some places, tackling problems such as inequality, drugs or obesity. The typical vice of governments is to overestimate what they can achieve short-term, and mistake announcing policies for achieving results, but underestimate what they can achieve long-term, and I suspect that this will be a particular risk for whoever is elected in Cairo.
New technologies are both a help and a hindrance here. On the one hand they make it possible to open up public data as never before, and to engage the public in co-design of policies and programmes. But they can also amplify lies as well as truths; they can encourage manipulative populism and scapegoating of minorities; and at worst they encourage an obsessive short-termism which makes it impossible to face up to difficult long-term challenges.
So what should we be most wary of? One thing to fear is government’s use of fear. States want to be monopolists of force but often use it against their own people. This is a tension captured well in Aesop’s fable of the horse which is being attacked by the pig and asks for help from the man. The man says that he would like to help, but will have to harness the horse first (in other words, from the very beginning, freedom depends on subjection). Repeatedly dictators and scoundrels have taken refuge in the claim that the community is under threat and that only they can protect it: having taken power, the protectors then become attackers. The exploitation of fears is a recurrent motif in political history: anxiety is the first refuge of the political scoundrel, with terrorism the preferred fear today. The Nazi leader Goering advised that ‘the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders . . . All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism’. Yet it’s often the state itself that we have most reason to fear. In the 20th century alone some 170m people are estimated to have been killed by their own governments. The word terrorism was first used to describe violence by the state in revolutionary France, and since then state terrorism has been far more deadly than its non-state counterpart, whether promoted within borders (by the Chekha and its descendants, the NKVD and KGB, the South Africa Defence Force, or the Gestapo) or beyond national borders (by the CIA, the various terrorist clients of Iran and Syria or the assassins of Mossad). In the Marxist-Leninist tradition there was even pride in the state’s capacity for harshness: Leon Trotsky once wrote a book justifying violence against a people by the state that was published in English as ‘In Defence of Terrorism’.
As Gregor Gysi, the leader of the ex-communist PDS in Germany put it: ‘Good government begins with good opposition’
If violence is one extreme, what of whether governments through their actions disempower citizens, for example through too much regulation? As the philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel put it, a society of sheep begets a government of wolves, and we should be suspicious of any government that has taken too much power away from the people. Faced with a new problem many jump too quickly to laws and rules. But it’s not always true that a bigger state automatically means a weaker society. Retreating governments are often replaced not by vigorous civic activity but by organised crime, as the states of the former Soviet Union learned in the 1990s, and many US cities in the decade before. Within Europe, and even amongst the states of the USA, levels of civic activity correlate roughly with the size of public spending, not with its inverse, as you might expect from conservative rhetoric. Moreover some of the world’s most competitive economies have large states – like Finland (often no 1 in the annual global competitiveness rankings). Despite many efforts, no one has shown an inverse relationship between how much governments spend and how dynamic their economies are. It’s not how big your government is that matters as much as how well it works, and how open and responsive it is.
Democracy tries to institutionalise division and conflict as an alternative to cycles of absolute power and revolt. In this respect it marks a significant shift from many of the traditions of the middle east, such as the tension between the traditions of ‘khuruj’, going out against a corrupt tyrant, and the view of fundamentalists such as al-Mawardi that ‘a thousand years of tyranny are better than one day of anarchy’. It also hopefully marks a shift from the cycles that were so brilliantly described by Ibn Khaldun, as every few generations a new wave of nomads would sweep into the cities and drive out the tired ruling dynasties, bringing fresh energy and idealism before they too were corrupted as the experience of power and urban life destroyed the very values they had brought with them. Something similar seems to happen in even the most settled regimes, but in democratic societies without the turmoil of violence and repression. In the meantime we need strong argument and contest. As Gregor Gysi, the leader of the ex-communist PDS in Germany put it well in their slogan for the election of 1994: ‘good government begins with good opposition’.
The challenge for Egypt is to do many things in tandem. One is to find a stable base for government, and for making the difficult decisions that government always entails. But then Egypt will need just as much the ability to counter it with effective and credible opposition and to surround both with a vigorous media and civil society that can float ideas, criticise and endorse. In all this the difficult balance to be struck is to combine support with scepticism, and to avoid going to the twin poles, of sycophancy on the one hand and crude cynical opposition on the other. It’s a balance that is rarely achieved in the west.
In ancient Sumeria, the oldest government of which we have any records, there was a simple solution: Sumerian kings had their faces slapped once a year by the high priest to remind them of the need for humility. That may not be possible – though social media and Al-Jazeera come close. But it’s a reminder of our often paradoxical relationship with power: the very power that we need to provide us with the conditions for life, is also the power that can so easily turn against us.