More than Institutions, Too

Thursday, May 26, 2011

From time to time, and in different contexts, I have heard others, mainly conservatives, attribute the existence of personal and economic freedom in the West to its superior institutions. The latest to put forth this view is Amity Shlaes, who prescribes the wholesale grafting of western institutions onto Middle Eastern societies as a way to foster the development of freedom there in the wake of the latest round of popular unrest there.

So, how to apply Russia's lessons to the emergent Arab democracies? The easy part is to recognize that states need institutions to avoid a Russia-style free-for-all. Schools, property rights and courts are the most important. Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, e-mailed me a related thought: In his view, Russia's big problem was the voters' equation of democracy with disorder. Arabs watching the chaos unfolding in Libya and Yemen would be forgiven for coming to a similar conclusion. "Whether these nations end up with their own kind of Putinism will depend on whether they can also create new institutions that work," Sestanovich wrote.

The next step is more uncomfortable. Those necessary institutions normally take years, even centuries, to build. Middle East democracy doesn't have that much time. The most efficient way to build institutions is to import international -- yes, Western -- traditions. A U.S. scholarship program for Middle Eastern high school or college students would give them much to take home and build a country with. To recommend Western institutions to Middle Eastern nations runs against the grain even more than recommending them to Eastern Europe. It sounds colonial. [minor format edits]
I do not dispute the importance of the government protecting property rights, nor will I argue that good education is vital to a free society (although I think the government shouldn't attempt to provide it). I will even concede that strong, functional institutions can promote or protect freedom. Institutions cannot cause freedom, however, and they are not enough to promote or protect freedom on their own.

To that point, I will note two major problems with Shlaes's advice: (1) If institutions are all we need to prevent something like Russian-style crony "capitalism" from taking root, how does she explain the fact that, over time the government of the United States has "squeezed or seized" whole sectors of our economy (like medicine) and companies (like GM)? (2) What does Shlaes mean by the last word in the phrase, "institutions that work?" The facts that we already know this advice will not work, and that we need some criterion to establish what we even mean by, "work" tells us something: The conservative idea that freedom will happen in a society, if only good institutions are established, is just as naive as the idea that freedom will inexorably follow from free elections.

What is missing in places like Russia and the Middle East -- and is withering away in America -- is a broad cultural acceptance of the idea that each of us must be left alone to attend to his own business, meaning that we must be free to speak our minds, profit from our efforts, and trade with others by mutual consent and to mutual benefit. The primary danger to these freedoms comes from other men initiating physical force (e.g., by theft, harm, or threat of harm), whether those men are acting as individuals, members of crime syndicates, or government officials. To the degree that there is cultural acceptance of the government performing tasks (like central planning or wealth redistribution) that entail it initiating force against private citizens, a society will head towards a "Russia-style free-for-all" at a speed reflective of the broadness and degree of such acceptance.

A people that does not itself understand, appreciate, and demand freedom will not get it. They will not vote for it, and they will subvert or tolerate corrupt institutions. Conversely, as Americans did after we won our freedom, a people that truly understands and values freedom will find a way to create institutions that will help perpetuate it. Americans did not need to have, for example, its system of checks and balances imposed from without.

-- CAV

----- In Other News -----

Via The Endeavour is a good quote about theoretical models:
[A] man who uses an imaginary map, thinking it is a true one, is like to be worse off than someone with no map at all; for he will fail to inquire whenever he can, to observe every detail on his way, and to search continuously with all his senses and all his intelligence for indications of where he should go.
Always check your "maps" against reality.

An occasional reader informs me that she has decided to post occasional short book reviews online at her blog, Nolan Book Reviews. Her last review is of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and she's currently working her way through Wilbur Smith's Hungry as the Sea.

It's as if Erin of Unclutterer has read my mind... Not only am I home-bound on Memorial Day this year, but her last two suggestions for "Three Easy Projects for a Monday" happen to be things I need to do, anyway.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Too cool of you! Thanks again, CAV!

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome.

Jim May said...

There are many examples in the world, many in the 19th century when America was seen as the light of the world, of nations that aped the forms and institutions of the United States in the hopes of achieving the same results. One example is the United States of Mexico.

Gus Van Horn said...

Good point, and in making it you clearly show that the march of history has been backwards since: Not only is such imitation now almost beyond the pale to even hint at, it is Americans themselves giving the advice, although they should know better than to give it.