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.
Collier is an economist. That means that when he wants to solve a problem, he looks for a data set. You might imagine this makes the story less thrilling. Not so.
Talking about his attempt to quantify the cost of civil war on a nation’s skill base, Collier intones, “[T]his work was right on the edge of what is possible,” as though he were doing something far more precarious than running a regression analysis. Nevertheless, his verve for the explanatory power of economics is contagious. There are many moments in this book that have the pulse and race of a new discovery.
The problems facing the people of the Bottom Billion, Collier argues, are two-fold. They lack a strong national identity, inhibiting collective action, and, as a result, they are unable to hold their governments accountable.
The picture that emerges is a familiar one. Chaos breeds poverty and distrust and into the void step all manner of connivers. Patronage, corruption, and violence become the tools that sustain power, and the poorest suffer most, further degrading the country’s ability to demand more from its leaders.
All of this we’ve heard before, although Collier’s efforts to quantify, for example, the conditions that spawn coups, are revealing. (Foreign aid might have the effect of encouraging one.)
The danger of rushing elections
More novel, however, is Collier’s central contention that given the state of affairs in Bottom Billion countries, the international community often errs by pushing headlong for elections.
Recall the first time Iraqis voted, in 2005. The election was heralded as a turning point, but stands in retrospect as a prologue to the worst sectarian violence of the war.
In post-conflict societies like Iraq, Collier writes “The net effect of [an] election is to make the society more dangerous.”
It’s a strong statement, but one Collier supports convincingly. He catalogues the tools of disenfranchisement available to the opportunistic in immature democracies – bribery, violence, miscounting votes – and argues that even when votes are cast freely, they tend to be cast blindly, along ethnic lines.
Under such conditions, the defeated should not or will not respect the outcome of an election, and the country finds itself even more destabilized than it had been. The recently stolen election in Zimbabwe is only the most glaring example of a trend that has weighed on sub-Saharan countries for the past half century.
At the end of his dispiriting, if also clear-eyed, analysis, Collier dutifully appends several solutions. He calls on the developed world to provide political, economic, and security incentives to Bottom Billion governments that conduct themselves with probity.
Some of his ideas are innovative – such as internationally underwritten coup insurance – though also a little too neat when set against all the countervailing forces that Collier previously described.
Progress over time
There is cause for hope, or pessimism, depending on how you look at it, in one of the most interesting parts of “Wars, Guns, and Votes.” Collier describes the historical processes that brought legitimate government to Europe, under conditions at least as abject as those facing the Bottom Billion today.
After the departure of the Roman Empire in AD 403, it was 1,000 years before England stabilized to the point where it can today worry about such small things as smoking bans and traffic congestion. The US achieved the same in just a couple centuries, and with only one civil war, so perhaps the broader trend lines are promising.
At the same time, there is a startling asymmetry between the magnitude of suffering and the small measure of progress that might accrue in a decade. If there’s a visceral lesson in this book, it is that it’s much easier to tear a nation apart than to build one up.
Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.