Government: the good, the bad and the appalling

By Lorenzo

Conservative humourist P J O’Rourke once observed, after flying over West and East Germany, that one should probably try to avoid public policy mistakes you can see from 20,000 feet up.

The Kim Family Regime failing to be the light in the darkness

Then there are public policy mistakes one can see from orbit.

The two Germanys and the two Koreas constituted natural public policy experiments. Take a nation sharing a common language and culture that was previously united. Divide it, have one part run as a command economy, the other as a mixed-market economy. Run for 40, 50, 60 years and see how things turn out.

Not that they are the only such natural experiments. Take a double continent. Have disease and invasion decimate the existing inhabitants so that European settlers and their descendants become the dominant population. Have most of one continent run by British institutions and all the rest run by Iberian institutions. Run for 100, 200, 300 years and see how things turn out.

(Pause for joke: an American asks a Mexican why do the Mexicans hate us? The Mexican replies that you stole half our country. What’s more, you stole the half with all the paved roads.)

Or, take two large islands each with previously dense economic connections to a mainland run by a revolutionary republic that blocks all direct trade with the large island off its coast and appears to threaten invasion so that each island seeks support from a distant Power hostile to the relevant revolutionary republic. Have both run by dictatorships for decades, where each of the original dictators is succeeded by a family member. Have one island run as a command economy, the other as a mixed-market economy. Run for 50, 60 years and see how things turn out. (The families are, of course, the Chiangs and the Castros. In ironies of history; consider the question whether contemporary China follows more the ideas of Chiang Kai-shek or of Mao Zedong? One wit has observed that the CPC has been trying to become the KMT while the KMT has been trying to become the DPP.)

Sometimes, a single graph can indicate how bad a regime is [Sometimes, appalling government can be merely a factor in a much bigger crisis] (via).

Since 1960, US life expectancy has gone up fairly steadily while Brazilian life expectancy has gone up faster (albeit from a lower base). This is not because Brazil is better governed than the US. It is because it is usually easier to be a late adopter of technology–you already know what works.

Up until 1985, Rhodesia-cum-Zimbabwe was doing the faster rate of improvement thing, like Brazil and many other countries. Even though it had a civil war from 1964-1979. In 1980, Robert Mugabe came to power, becoming effective dictator in 1987.

He proceeded to preside over a collapse in life-expectancy. More recently, things have got a bit better on life expectancy, according to the above estimates, but even on generous estimates Zimbabwean life expectancy has only just got to where it was under colonial rule 60 years ago.

The prime culprit is the HIV/AIDS crisis in Zimbabwe. While this is a severe problem throughout the continent, particularly in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe has managed a particularly high level of disaster precisely because it has been so [has experienced this crisis while being] appalling mismanaged by Mugabe’s regime. The political repression and stunning economic mismanagement of Mugabe’s regime has generated millions of refugees. Zimbabwean hyperinflation became so extreme it could no longer be effectively measured and the Zimbabwean currency has been entirely abandoned, while the blatant cronyism of land redistribution made property rights extremely insecure. (I have previously discussed the dynamics of hyperinflation.)

Such a level of social disruption (including decay of basic health infrastructure) obviously makes a disease crisis that much worse that [that much harder to deal with]. Even though HIV transmission in Africa is overwhelmingly heterosexual, campaigns politically targeting the queer community have also not helped.

In the midst of this social agony, a local (black) journalist caused a stir some years ago when he wrote a column Come Back Ian Smith, All Is Forgiven.

New Zealand political scientist Xavier Marquez’s work on the irrelevance of legitimacy and the dynamics of personality cults is very relevant. Mugabe has very much been the centre of a cult of personality while Rhodesia was much better governed under minority white rule than Zimbabwe has been under Mugabe. Sadly, how well a government actually governs has limited connection to whether it is of a form which is deemed desirable or justifiable. Or proves to be sustainable.

That the regime has so grotesquely failed the aspirations which gave it birth simply adds an extra level of failure to a regime already presiding over enormous amounts of it. Though, perhaps it provided a useful horrible example for post-apartheid South Africa, which has managed much better. (Having Nelson Mandela as your post-minority rule leader probably helps too.)

Now that Sub-Saharan Africa is not a contested place between alliance blocs, it has largely fallen out of Western political awareness. It has become the region of periodic apocalypse–war, disease and genocide. Including what is probably the deadliest conflict since WWII. Though dismissing the entire region as a place of disaster and failure is a dreadful implied slander on genuinely successful societies, such as Botswana.

Nevertheless, contemplating these distant social disasters, we can appreciate what an achievement good government is, and what a catastrophe it can be not to enjoy it.


  1. Holden Caulfield
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the different trajectories of Britain and the Continent as a result of the English developing their Common Law, and the Continent reaching backwards to clutch at the straws of state-worshiping proto-fascist Roman Civil War is surely a PhD waiting to be written.

  2. Nigel Davies
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Let’s stir the pot further.
    You mention the difference between English and Iberian institutions in the America’s, but there are similar comparisons in Europe (north vs south), Africa and Asia (as well as your North versus Sth America sample) where you could more accurately use the words Protestant vs Catholic institutions instead.
    Could a ‘personal responsibility’ culture compared to a ‘received authority’ culture explain more? Certainly that perspective is possibly a more relevant comparison to Capitalism vs Communism than English vs Iberian can ever be?

  3. Drew
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    As bad as Zimbabwe is, I don’t think that graph is fair. Check out the life expectancy of Zimbabwe and Botswana, a genuinely successful society, here.

  4. Posted January 16, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Good point, I have amended the post accordingly.

    [email protected] Blaming the ECB on different legal traditions is a stretch 🙂

  5. derrida derider
    Posted January 17, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Fortunately for North Korea this is an easily corrected policy mistake.

    All that is needed is to liquidate the current People’s Commissar For Street Lighting
    and have the new one set up giant searchlights aimed at those capitalo-fascist satellites ….

  6. kvd
    Posted January 17, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    The NK picture was taken in late March, but not sure of the year. A pretty impressive contribution to the IWIYW effort, showing what a bit of proper government organisation can achieve.

  7. Holden Caulfield
    Posted January 17, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, while I am no expert, I have been persuaded by a lot of what “legal origins theory” scholars argue. But there is much I find not so persuasive.

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