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Freedom is hard to obtain, as hard to keep but easy to lose

8 September 2021 7:15 PM
digitial technology

Afghanistan is independent after 20 years of US occupation, it is not free though

The documentary on the 9/11 attacks in the US for the 20th anniversary is a good reminder of how freedom is viewed in different societies.

It tracks the events that led to the attacks in response to US interventions in Afghanistan, the Middle East and other Islamic countries, the events on the day and then the long and lasting impact of the decisions to retaliate and invade and overthrow the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq.

With the US withdrawing before the 20th anniversary effectively on principle following their longest war, it was hoped Afghanistan would continue as a free and independent country. It was hoped that the trillions of dollars spent to train and supply the government and military would set the country on a path to democracy.

Before the US left, the Taliban had toppled the government and taken control of the country. They represent something very different to the US idea of Democracy, some wondered how did the US fail so completely, others might argue how did the US think it would ever be able to succeed.

Both are justified because while democracy may be a simple concept, it is hard to implement.

Assuming you can get support to pursue a democratic order, understanding the role and ability to fulfil the role played by government, civil society, elites and business need to come together in a specific way to succeed.

Here is a primer of what those roles are thanks to the 2019 book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson called The Narrow Corridor. It is also available via the Book summary service Blinkist.

Being at warre

The spelling of warre might look like an error, but this version was identified by a philosopher from the 1600s Thomas Hobbes who described it as the conflict between people which makes co-operation almost impossible and fear and intimidation are the principal method for getting things done.

Despite having realised over 400 years ago that humanity is destined to achieve little if the focus is only on personal benefit and if there are not enough rules to allow everyone to compete fairly, the state will fail. Given the status of co-operation and the balance of power in many countries, you may conclude that we have not progressed much at all.

Leviathans to the rescue

Not only did Hobbes identify the problem, he explained how to fix it. A strong central government would serve the role of peacekeeper and arbiter in disputes. It would build and manage infrastructure for the benefit of society and create and enforce the rules that would regulate what is and is not allowed between competing groups in society.

So why do we not have the utopia he described?

Not all leviathans are equal

We have come to learn that what may begin as a strong government, can become a bad one if there is not a balance with other parts of society to balance its powers.

This looks all too familiar with new nations that overcome some tyrant by a revolutionary that promises to restore power to the people.

Those entrusted with the power soon realise that there are many others besides their fellow citizens that would like to have them implement certain projects and that those projects would be of great benefit to the leaders which must mean it will be of benefit to the people.

If the citizens of a nation are not very organised or differ greatly in their view of what a good government is, then other influences will exert their power over the government. Typically this would be other nations, business or elites.

Small groupings with outsize power that can corrupt the government to set up the cycle for a repeat.

It is also possible that as the new government begins to use its power it realises that it can do what it likes and sets off to silence those that challenge it and rather than invite multiparty involvement in government, seeks to become a one party state and removes limits on terms in office.

How to shackle a leviathan

Acemoglu and Robinson’s ideal scenario is one where society, business, elites and government are in a balanced tension. Government undertakes to enforce laws and regulations, society and business seek to limit the government's desire to overreach or extend their terms and power.

Besides the challenges to reach this position and the counter intuitive effort by a government to limit its power and bolster the power of civil society. Sustaining it comes with its own challenges.

For a society that has had an extended period of peace, the expectation for more innovation may challenge some liberties and if it has grown complacent, the implication of small erosions of some rights might not seem like a major issue.

But over time those small erosions shift the balance and when business or government have acquired enough of the power you can expect to see the issues begin to rise.

All nations are at some point on the spectrum between creating, shackling and losing control over their leviathans and sometimes you could be at different stages depending on the part of society you are looking at.

South Africa’s warning

How would you judge the balance of power in South Africa? Is the government powerful enough to competently enforce the laws and rules that have been passed. Are they overstepping their limits and beginning to bully business and society or may not be strong at all and lost the ability to fulfil the mandate given to it by its citizens.

We could ask if business and the elites are working to balance the state’s efforts or to undermine it. If they are too powerful you may see the issues raised by civil society not be addressed if they are not in the interests of business and elites.

For South Africa, the efforts of business in response to the pandemic have been very positive. Despite the actions set out by the government impacting negatively on normal business operations significantly, the vast majority have enforced the requirements for sanitising and mask wearing. Even the smallest store that could not afford to turn away customers had signs to say "no mask no entry".

For other subjects like income, wealth and land equality, it is fair to say that business and elites are not doing their bit to address the situation.

While when it comes to municipal governance and national governance for that matter it would appear that the state can barely look after its own party affairs let alone those of the state, the challenges from opposition parties, civil society organisations and the courts does create an effective check if not an actual balance.

Corruption is one that sees business and society working to undermine the state even though the short term gain leads to much greater harm in the long run.

Taking note of the dire situation in Afghanistan now, the suspension of the constitution in Tunisia, the coup in Guinea and the many other challenges to efforts to create a peaceful and prosperous nation are a warning to not take freedom for granted and to remember that it is far easier to fight to retain it than it is to regain it.

8 September 2021 7:15 PM
digitial technology

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