The Factors of Failure

Mankind is worse governed than it needs to be. Attribute that, besides man’s inherent limitations, to the fact that we like to believe in stupidities and often follow those who lead us by telling the lies we wish to hear.

In every age, certain, devoid-of-reality prejudices are unthinkingly shared as facts. These truths-by-acclamation appear to be obvious to those that “belong” and will be enforced by stigmatizing the sceptics. This branding will happen either by law or by social action. The related taboo criminalizes any attempt to even discuss the veracity of its endorsed pretentions. Where this fit, we have a dogmatic truth whose proof is that it is shared “by all” who count, and whose validity rests on sanctions levied against doubters. Knowing that there are witches have played this role. In some circles, equality divorced from merit as a standard of fairness has similar status. Or just try to discuss “Jewish guilt” with an anti-Semite.

A truth propagated by elites whose validity depends upon enforced adherence is that “all cultures are equal”. This might appear to be an innocent assertion. Therefore, letting it pass can seem to be a small concession. Not so.
Upon examination, the distortion gains significance because it confirms romantic multiculturalism. The duty to accept masses of culturally alien migrants is carried by the claim. If the thesis is true, integration cannot be a problem, and the “newer arrivals”, even if they refuse integration, can be depicted as benefitting the “earlier settled” natives. In practice, the equality of cultures is exploited as an argument against integration because, if the pretention is valid, it cannot be of use.

Adding to the damaging illusion is the theory that obfuscates why certain religions have prevented their holder from entering the modern world created by Europeans inside and beyond their continent – and joined in recent decades by East Asians. This is a crucial matter. If we must look for the cause of global poverty where it is not, and if one may not search where it originates, then unequal development expressed by, -excuse the fitting term-, backwardness, cannot be overcome. On the whole, a lost war can be less damaging than a theocracy run by the infallible.

A related theme is a community’s religion’s nexus to the ability to innovate. Faiths that help to bear suffering and reject new ideas that improve the human condition, will render its adherents uncompetitive. This rejection is reinforced if religion proclaims a group’s own ways to be inherently superior to what inferior non-believers can generate. The closely related racism -whether religiously or secularly argued – will not only prevent learning from the example of others, but also isolate the infected from alternative ways of life.

It is an astute assessment regarding the global economy that “we compete with our cultures”. If societies compete through their cultures, then cultures are not only not equal, but their differences determine how they fare. Certain regions, countries, and the holders of views, are successful to the extent that they can “feed their members” while others fail at that task. Therefore, it is of use to sum up the traits associated with feast here, and famine there. The differences, if they reoccur in time and in diverse global neighborhoods, are not to be dismissed as accidental.

This leads us to the difficult question, what is, for our purpose, culture. With the diverse components added up, culture is the way groups perceive of problems and the manner by which they tackle them. Culture has numerous attributes. One of the easily defined characteristics is religion. Some religions correlate with collective achievement, while others bolster communities that are locked into a past that is also their preferred future. It should be noted that, even within countries, Christianity’s branches have no uniform record. The achievement of Jews, in part attributable to their faith’s emphasis on learning is, in spite of externally imposed handicaps, above the average of their hosting majority’s.

Minority status is an ambivalent element. Even within a country -as in the USA- some minorities out-score the majority while others underperform it. While “prejudice” is a factor to be considered, it does not shed light on the total picture even if it is invoked to secure victim status. Belonging to an unpopular group can elicit the response of working harder, and trying to be the best. Or, confirming the bias of inferiority, it can paralyze because “I have no chance, no matter what I do”.

Failure and success have much to do with society’s attitude toward work. Work, especially if well done, can be a source of pride and bring ennobling personal fulfillment. Alternatively, work can be seen as a demeaning signal of inferiority. Thus, avoiding work becomes the proof of being clever and of “having made it”.

Where the work ethic is feeble, talents will swarm into government jobs and corruption will prevail. The profits of venality define a person’s significance. The more the power the higher the take. Corruption reduces the value of honest work, increases transaction costs, hinders enterprise, and results in bad governance. Talents will be invested in activities that reward with a high take for the regulator and that are remote from what is of social value. Once corruption becomes an accepted and expected perk, eliminating it to free the road to development will be difficult.

Soon after the end of the socialist era, the writer invited a fellow lecturer to Switzerland. The guy had two revealing reactions. One came when he looked down into a valley “from here, with a cannon, I could stop an entire Soviet armored division”. (The country can be defended.) The other: “here everything works”. (The country is worth defending.) Truly, development and a system in which things work the way they are supposed to, are interrelated. If the train is announced to be an hour late elicits no grumble only silent acceptance, then you know that you are in a backward country. Punctuality is in some societies self-evident and rates as “good manners”. There are places where “tomorrow at 10:00” will be, with some luck after-tomorrow at 11:00 -and there will be no apology.

Correctness, that contracts are fulfilled, and that the law determines outcomes, is a related matter. A bazar mentality and procedures tailored to the person’s importance are bad signs and their consequences are costly to society.

The quality of governance and the expectations regarding its role are decisive building blocks of success, stagnation, and of failure. Modernization is hindered if betterment is expected as a generous gift of the government that allows one do whatever functions. Successful societies know limited government as far as its power and its involvement is concerned. This frees the resulting savings for rational investments and profitable innovations.

Some dictatorships might grant some economic freedom to society so as to fortify their own base. However, such freedoms might not be optimal preconditions for modernization as their extent is limited. Once growth’s beneficiaries develop political agendas, the slack is likely to be taken back. Stability and predictability happen to be important preconditions of collective success.

What can be asserted on the basis of the foregoing generalizations? It is that, the poverty of left-behind communities, whether they are states or social groups within countries, is seldom due to exploitation and suppression alone. Man-made factors that transcend nature’s gifts -there are rich countries that are poor, and poor countries that are well off- are responsible for the welfare of communities.

Second, aid from abroad might not help and it is not accidental that, on the whole, “foreign aid” has failed. Decades and billions later, the achievement is limited. Uncontrolled aid has created irrational expectations -anticipating more of the same undermines the ability to self-generate wealth. Furthermore, it enabled thieving elites to govern immature societies dictatorially. Worthy goals cannot be achieved by throwing money at them.

Granted, no group chooses to be poor and backward. However, people have a say to determine the pre-conditions that make associations fail or prevail. Quite frequently, the wrong choice’s promise of a shining future attracts the innocent herd conditioned by the prejudice of its culture. The degree of the attraction of chimeras, such as that needs can be satisfied by taking what belongs to others, is culturally determined and of consequence. Derailing traditions, misinterpreted hopes, reminiscences of past glory, the preference for traditional ways, and the lacking knowledge of the real world conspire to retard development. Elites spreading simple but false teachings lure peoples onto turn-offs that make them head the wrong way against the traffic on the divided highway on which others escape poverty.

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