»  National Review Online

April 4th, 2006

  Putting the World to Rights


My 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica lists 152 countries in the world. Question: How many of those countries made it from 1911 to today, nearly a century later, with their systems of government and law intact (allowing for minor constitutional adjustments like expansion of the franchise), without having suffered revolution, civil war, major dismemberment, or foreign occupation?

I'll stand open to correction here, but I make it six: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.S.A. Not even Britain qualifies, because of the secession of the Republic of Ireland, nearly thirty percent of the area of the 1911 United Kingdom. (There are a scattering of marginal cases you might lawyer into the list, South Africa for example, but I'm going to apply a strict standard.)

Plainly a person alive in 1911 who wished to see his nation get clear through to 2006 without suffering any of the above-mentioned traumas needed to be a citizen of either one of the big British-settler nations or a smallish, out-of-the-way European country speaking mainly some language of the Germanic family and having a name beginning "Sw —."

I mention this only to point out that while it is certainly true, as Adam Smith said, that "there is a deal of ruin in a nation," it is also true that the modern age has offered a deal of opportunities for nation-ruination, albeit often of only a temporary kind. To put it another way: To get a nation up and running under a stable, modern constitution and legal system, and to keep the whole thing on the tracks for a few decades, is no mean feat. If you are not an Anglo-Saxon nation, in fact, it needs something close to a miracle.

These thoughts came to mind as I was reading the leader article on the recent fuss over illegal immigration in my current (4/1/06) issue of The Economist.

[F]aster economic growth in Mexico would do more than any legislative fix to take the heat out of America's immigration argument.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force in 1994, it was hoped that Mexico's economy would quickly converge with the United States. That hasn't happened. In the late 1990s, Mexico's GDP grew half as fast again as America's. No longer. China has partly displaced Mexico as a supplier of low-wage manufacturing. Nowadays, Mexico creates decent jobs for only around a quarter of the 800,000 who join its workforce each year.

The main way to change that is for Mexico's next president, who will be elected in July, to push through long-delayed reforms of taxes, energy, labour and competition laws. But there is one way the United States could help. Lack of roads and railways mean that the benefits of NAFTA have been largely confined to northern Mexico, rather than the poorer centre and south where most migrants come from. A North American infrastructure fund — in which the United States matched Mexican investment — makes much more sense than spending money on a border wall. In the long run, a richer Mexico means a richer and more secure United States.

Now, The Economist is an open-borders magazine, a thing which, if you didn't already know it, you would quickly glean from their "news" story on the immigration fight in this same issue. The story quotes open-borders advocate Tamar Jacoby with approval, and refers to Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who wants current laws enforced, as a "rabble-rouser." The Economist is also, of course, a magazine with a strong tilt towards economics, and thus a tendency towards "economism" — the idea that all the world's affairs are driven by economic factors, and that nothing else matters much. With that mindset, it is natural to think: "If the Mexican economy could just be fixed, the problem would be solved!" Which might actually be true.

But who is going to fix Mexico's economy? Why, Uncle Sam — who else? That was the point where I covered my face with my hands and groaned. Not only do we have a mission to lick Iraq into constitutional shape, we also have to put Mexico's economy right! Any other countries need us to straighten them out?

And why, in any case, is Mexico's economy in such bad shape? Mexico is a big country, rich in natural resources, entirely in charge of its own affairs for 185 years. Its people are, as the advocates of illegal immigration never cease to remind us, enterprising and industrious. So … why is Mexico so darn poor, with a median income only one-sixth of ours? The standard Mexican and guilty-American-liberal answer is some variant of the one given to P.J. O'Rourke in Holidays in Hell: "Because, Señor, you yanquis stole half our country — the half with all the good roads!"

The real answer is that Mexico is poor because Mexico has lousy government — corrupt, lawless, and dysfunctional. But why is that? Why, in fact, do most of the countries in the world have such poor government? The usual answer is "culture." But what does that mean? Why do people here organize their affairs like this, while people there organize their affairs like that? To say "because they have different cultures" doesn't really get us anywhere. It just restates the fact. Why do they have different cultures? As an engineer would say: What are the upstream variables?

And even within the constraints of culture, can't people change their politics from bad (nation-impoverishing) to good (nation-enriching)? The politics of 1930 Japan and the politics of 1960 Japan were both "very Japanese" culture-wise, but they don't otherwise bear much resemblance. Could not Mexico, or Iraq, likewise move to rational, transparent, honest governance? Without the inconvenience of having two atom bombs dropped on them? (Amartya Sen takes a swing at "the illusion of cultural destiny" in Opinion Journal … though please note that Sen is another economist).

I don't, of course, know the answers to any of these questions, and neither does anyone else. Perhaps the human sciences, which are advancing very rapidly in the relevant areas, will give us some clues in the next few years. Until they do, though, all we can really say is that stable consensual government is hard to get and hard to keep. To stake our own nation — its prospects, its security, its economy — on our ability to create good government in foreign places, close or far, is unwise. Let's look to our own affairs, and do what's best for our own people, without any illusions that we have the knowledge, or the power, to put the whole world to rights.