Hail, the Conquering Hero Comes! 5

Don't wait for a political savior, take action.

This series has explored the process by which failed states might be put right.  In the past, when a government fell apart, some other nearby nation would march in, take over, and put the place right.  The leader of the invading army won fame and sometimes founded a new dynasty.

The Romans were famous for making this sort of empire pay - if the natives were so restless that keeping the peace cost more than the taxes raised from the area, they'd kill enough citizens that the remainder would decide to behave better.  Reduced law-enforcement cost cut the cost of governance enough that the area returned to profit.

Conquest doesn't work any more because a would-be conquering hero can't make any money from an empire.  The conquerors can't get a disorganized population to work hard enough to make them a profit unless they're willing to simply exterminate most of the natives.

Although the private East India Company profited by its trade with India, the British government lost money colonizing India.  When they were not able to afford to maintain India after the costs of WW II, they basically let the natives foreclose on that part of their empire and take it back.

Somalia has no functioning central government because it's been split up into warring tribes.  Modern guns and rocket-propelled grenades have become so cheap and so common that conquering Somalia would cost more than any sensible nation is willing to pay.  Although offshoots of the Taliban seem determined to conquer the country and establish central rule there, they haven't made much progress and certainly can't be expected to establish anything resembling civilization.

Somalians can't manufacture any of the guns, cell phones, or other aspects of modern life which they covet, of course, so they have to buy them from outside.  The ransom money they receive from piracy provides cash flow which comes in handy when purchasing basic necessities such as ammunition.

Closer to home, we have states like California and New Jersey whose debt levels are perilously close to making it impossible for the state to function properly.  We also discussed the city of Detroit which has become so dysfunctional that even black professionals are moving out.  The city long ago lost the ability to sustain itself.  Like Somalia, Detroit is sustained, if it can be called that, by transfer payments from outside.

Mexico: On the Right Track?

The situation in Mexico is similar to that of Somalia in that the nation is being torn apart by what amounts to a civil war between the government and a number of drug smuggling gangs.  Smuggling drugs into the United States by means other than the land border between the US and Mexico has become so difficult that the gangs need to control various parts of the border area in order to continue to do business.  Unfortunately for Mexico, the drug trade is so extremely profitable that the drug gangs can afford all the modern weaponry they want.

The gangs fight each other over transportation corridors and transfer points and they fight the government which has thrown the army into the battle against them.  Along the way, they assassinate politicians who seem to be closing in on them and kill citizens who might know something about their activities.

The resulting carnage has played well in American media and made it seem that Mexico might be falling apart, but the Brazilian murder rate in 2008 was 25.2 persons per 100,000 population as compared to the Mexican rate of 12.  The Brazilian murder rate is more than twice the Mexican rate, but nobody believes that Brazil is about to fall apart.

Mexico is now a proper multi-party democracy, but the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party) ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000.  The party was essentially a short-tenure monarchy with each retiring president anointing his own successor.  With all power vested in the government, it's no surprise that politically-connected people were able to amass vast wealth.

CBS News reports that a Mexican citizen named Carlos Slim is the richest man in the world.  His fortune is based on government-generated monopolies such as his cell phone company.  This keeps prices, and profits, a lot higher than they would be otherwise and the monopoly carrier has no incentive to offer new services.  The media don't talk much about how he spreads the wealth to politicians as "campaign contributions," but the implication is there.

The New York Times reports on increased democratization at the federal level:

For most of its modern history, Mexico was a monarchy in disguise. Each president in turn was the Great Elector, dominating Congress through a permanent majority, wielding influence over the Supreme Court, appointing and removing governors and mayors, freely manipulating the national budget and natural resources, and limiting freedom of expression.

In its decade of existence in Mexico, democracy has created a true division of power among Congress, the president and the judiciary; honest presidential and legislative elections; limits on the traditionally absolute power of the Mexican president; an independent Supreme Court; a disclosure law that has notably reduced federal corruption; unrestricted freedom of expression in the news media; and active participation by Mexican citizens in public life.

But democracy itself brought unexpected problems. The powers formerly monopolized by the president devolved to the state governors, most of whom still belonged to the PRI and often, suddenly free of presidential control, behaved like the old strongmen of the Mexican Revolution. They bought votes, controlled local electoral institutions, made free use of public funds, nourished corruption and repressed or silenced the press.  [emphasis added]

And yet, on Sunday, contrary to many people's expectations, committed citizens voted out the feudal lords in two key states, Oaxaca and Puebla, as well as in the violence-ridden state of Sinaloa.

The good news is that the citizens of Mexico, having voted out an extremely corrupt federal administration, are now voting out corrupt politicians at the state level just as Americans voted out high-spending governors in Virginia and New Jersey.  If it were not for the billions of dollars worth of cash flow which sustains the gangs which sell illegal drugs in America, Mexico would be well on its way to becoming a stable democracy.

If the voters can reduce corruption and government-protected monopolies enough, the natural talent for starting businesses that can be found in all countries will give a huge boost to the Mexican economy.  Once there are enough jobs, ambitious Mexicans can find jobs at home rather than having to sneak into the United States.

Democracy Isn't Required; Accountability Is

Recent Mexican history might seem like a point in favor of nation-building via spreading democracy, but democracy is no panacea.  Mexico was nominally a democracy for all of the 71 years until the PRI was voted out of office in 2000, but the voting system was corrupted enough that there was very little risk of any politician losing his or her job regardless of venality.

Just to make sure the voters didn't get too restless, the government silenced parts of the press that got too critical.  Things changed only when Mexican voters got enough information from sources which the government couldn't control to decide to "vote the rascals out!"

The necessity of accountability was recognized by Genghis Khan around 1250.  At the time he was born, the Mongol tribes raided each other; only might made right.  His mother was stolen from her first husband and his wife was kidnapped for long enough that his oldest son's paternity was suspect.

After he became the leader of all the Mongols, Genghis realized that he had to stop his subjects from fighting each other if his empire was to survive.  He taught that no one, not even the top ruler, was above the law and instituted laws which even he had to obey.  His legal system endured for several generations until his descendants decided that following the law was too much trouble and assumed arbitrary powers as our government is doing today.  Tearing down the legal system opened the door to corruption, of course, and corruption increased until his heirs' governments fell apart.

Singapore has been the opposite of a democracy ever since Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew assumed power in 1959.  His party has been in control of Singapore ever since with essentially no challenges from any other party.

The city has prospered, however, because Mr. Yew was death on corruption.  The anti-corruption forces reported directly to his office.

In the early days, they'd drive around committing traffic violations and attempt to bribe the cop to look the other way when they got pulled over.  If the officer accepted the bribe, they'd arrest him on the spot and take him straight to jail.  Word quickly got 'round, "Don't do that!"

Over the past half-century, Singapore has become one of the most prosperous places on the face of the earth instead of an impoverished post-colonial tropical backwater.  Thus we see that the secret of national prosperity is not necessarily democracy but accountability.

Having voters be able to hold politicians to account is one means of keeping government honest, but the 71 years of corrupted Mexican elections and the recent difficulties the Iraqis are having putting together a government after their recent elections show that democracy alone doesn't necessarily work.  Prime Minister Yew's personal honesty and fierce anti-corruption attitude seem to be pretty rare - we can't count on his successors holding to the same standard over the coming decades.

No politicians wants to be held responsible for anything.  That's why politicians prefer to disarm their citizens, for the sake of protecting them from criminals, of course.  It's too bad that ordinary Mexican citizens don't have enough money to buy guns to protect themselves from the drug lords, or like Chicago residents, are legally prohibited from doing so.  Even if the drug gangs killed, say, ten citizens for each of their men lost, the gangs are such a small fraction of the population that they'd soon be wiped out.

Gang operations, like political crookedness, are inhibited by accountability.  If gang members knew that there'd be a good chance of being held accountable by a victim shooting back, for example, they'd be less eager to murder.  Ultimately, of course, people can and do hold their governments accountable by waging war on them as in the Irish rebellion or voting with their feet as in the Mexican diaspora to the United States, but neither of those is an acceptable outcome for the neighbors.

Good News from Mexico

In the meantime, in the absence of an honest conquering hero, Mexico has no choice other than to forge ahead with democracy:

In practical terms, a pluralistic Mexico is far preferable to the restoration of a camouflaged monarchy. A country that becomes continually more comfortable with democracy and the rule of law in its states and cities can confront the challenge of organized crime in a more effective and responsible manner. Colombia has done it, and maintained democracy. Mexico - with some help and understanding from the United States - can do it as well. No matter the dangers, the future for Mexico must rest on maintaining and expanding its still young democracy.

This will be a long, hard road.  They'll have to allow competition for government-protected monopolies such as the cell phone system to open up the economy and create jobs - quite likely dethroning Mr. Slim from his pinnacle of world wealth, but benefiting millions of ordinary Mexicans.  Competition for the cell phone company will annoy politicians who regard their periodic payments from the company as their natural birthright.

They'll have to break up the union monopolies in Pemex, the national oil company, so that lowered staffing levels and the elimination of patronage can increase operating efficiencies and preserve cash for investment in new oil fields.

They'll have to aggressively attack the low-level venality and official corruption that has infested Mexico for centuries.  Sending the army against drug cartels and their kept politicians is a good start; but, like Singapore, Mexico needs a "flying squad" to round up cops who extort ten pesos from ordinary people, not just suitcases of Benjamins from druglords.

There's a lot to be done in Mexico, but the citizens seem to understand the value of breaking government power in favor of power being held by the people as called for by the US Constitution.  If Mexican voters can keep that up, there's no reason for Mexico to become a failed state.

In this case, there won't be any single heroic leader; the battle will be won or lost by hundreds or thousands of citizens just saying "No!" to the drug gangs, to corrupt politicians, and to bad governance generally.

Not that different, actually, from America's Tea Parties - both of them.  Does your nation seem like it needs a hero?  Don't look on a podium or white horse; instead, look in the mirror, saddle up, and vote the rascals out!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Nice article. You guys do like Genghis Khan, don't you?
July 22, 2010 9:00 AM
It's not that we like him per se, it's just that he illustrates so many principles about good government that we keep bringing him up.

He realized that to get people to follow the law, the boss had to set an example of following the law. This is an example of what Confucius called "virtue." Confucius wrote nearly 1,000 years before Genghis came along; it's likely that GK either read Confucius or heard about him.

Consider the effect on our society of congress exempting itself from all laws they pass. We the peasants have a sneaking feeling that if the laws aren't worth obeying by our elected masters, why are they worth obeying by us? Congress is setting an example of the rulers being above the law.

Genghis' grandson Kublai conquered China more through subtlety and propaganda than through war. Kublai's descendants found it inconvenient to follow the law and, like Obama, put themselves above the law, which set a non-virtuous example for everybody below them. Their dynasty collapsed in snort order.
July 23, 2010 6:31 PM
Mexico is by no means out of the woods. NYT thinks they might not make it. They agree with you on the need for government accountability. Wonder why they keep promoting non-accountability in the US?

Colombia Can Win Mexico's Drug War
Colombia's strategy to end its drug crisis succeed because tax reform and improved government accountability was part of the plan.
July 30, 2010 5:17 PM
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