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Wars, Guns, and Votes

Why democracy is slow to take root in the Third World.

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On a recent Amtrak trip from Philadelphia to Boston, my friend Andrea found herself sitting behind a woman who yammered loudly on her cellphone all the way through New York and up past New Haven. Finally, Andrea tapped the woman on the shoulder and asked her to speak more quietly.

The request did not go over well. “If you touch me again,” the woman replied, “I’m going to break your finger.”

What’s the point? In this case, only that it’s hard to live together. It’s hard to generate the kind of norms that stigmatize loud talking in public places, and once instilled, it’s even harder to enforce them. No doubt many of Andrea’s fellow passengers wanted to say something, but did not dare. As Jerry Seinfeld once reminded the boorish George Costanza, “We’re trying to have a civilization here.” On the whole, it’s not easy.

But after reading Paul Collier’s Wars, Guns, and Votes, it’s clear that the United States is doing better than most. By and large we pay our taxes, stop at red lights, and abide by the result of an election, even when our guy doesn’t win. Such cohesiveness has been hard to come by, particularly if you also value freedom.

Collier’s area of interest is what he calls the “Bottom Billion,” the countries that collectively make up the poorest billion people in the world. With just a few exceptions, that means sub-Saharan Africa, and “Wars, Guns, and Votes” is an attempt to quantify why, in that region over the past 60 years, good government and social cohesion have been so scarce.

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