End of Empire
The new City Journal is out, and chock-full of intellectual goodness it is too
. I intend to comment on many of the articles therein, but first and foremost is a somewhat depressing article by the good Doctor Theodore Dalrymple
on what he has taken away from witnessing the end of British colonialism. Those who read it with an eye on the Coalition's upcoming experiences in Iraq may be dismayed at the prospect. Indeed, it might seem to echo the comments of some before the war that it is futile to attempt to introduce democracy to Iraq, as its culture will not allow it.
Dalrymple's article in many ways echoes one of Kipling's most famous poems, but in reverse. Dalrymple plainly believes that "there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the Earth." He is no racist, although I am sure that the simple-minded will accuse him of that on skimming this piece. What Dalrymple argues, I think, is that the cultural make-up of Africa is such that the governmental structures left by the British would naturally by used by Africans to exploit their fellows:
In fact, it was the imposition of the European model of the nation-state upon Africa, for which it was peculiarly unsuited, that caused so many disasters. With no loyalty to the nation, but only to the tribe or family, those who control the state can see it only as an object and instrument of exploitation. Gaining political power is the only way ambitious people see to achieving the immeasurably higher standard of living that the colonialists dangled in front of their faces for so long. Given the natural wickedness of human beings, the lengths to which they are prepared to go to achieve power—along with their followers, who expect to share in the spoils—are limitless. The winner-take-all aspect of Africa’s political life is what makes it more than usually vicious.
After several years in Africa, I concluded that the colonial enterprise had been fundamentally wrong and mistaken, even when, as was often the case in its final stages, it was benevolently intended. The good it did was ephemeral; the harm, lasting. The powerful can change the powerless, it is true; but not in any way they choose. The unpredictability of humans is the revenge of the powerless. What emerges politically from the colonial enterprise is often something worse, or at least more vicious because better equipped, than what existed before. Good intentions are certainly no guarantee of good results.
There are two comments I should like to make on this article. The first relates to whether the African experience can be generalized to the idea that British colonialism was evil from this conservative perspective. The second asks whether the African experience tells us much about the possible effects of introducing democracy to Arab countries.
For the first point, I turn to Niall Ferguson, who has emerged as the best defender of the British Imperial legacy working today. In the conclusion to his book Empire
, which I cannot recommend highly enough, he points out the efforts the British made, and the success they had, in leaving stable government behind. This excerpt is lengthy, but important:
[Comparing the growth in the economies of fomer British colonies to those of others] ... which British institutions promoted development? First, we should not underestimate the benefits conferred by British law and administration. A recent survey of forty-nine countries concluded that 'common-law countries have the strongest, and French civil-law countries the weakest, legal protections of investors,' encouraging both shareholders and creditors. This is of enormous importance in encouraging capital foundation, without which entrepreneurs can achieve little. The fact that eighteen of the sample countries have the common-law system is of course almost entirely due to their having been at one time or another under British rule.
A similar point can be made about the nature of British governance. At its apogee in the mid-nineteenth century, two features of the Indian and Colonial services are especially striking when compared with many modern regimes in Asia and Africa. First, British administration was remarkably cheap and efficient. Secondly, it was remarkably non-venal. Its sins were generally sins of omission, not commission. This too cannot be wholly without significance, given the demonstrable correlations today between economic under-performance and both excessive government expenditure and public sector corruption.
The economic historian David Landes recently drew up a list of measures which 'the ideal growth-and-development' government would adopt. Such a government, he suggests, would
1. secure rights of private property, the better to encourage saving and investment;
2. secure rights of personal liberty ... against both the abuses of tyranny and ... crime and corruption;
3. enforce rights of contract;
4. provide stable government ... governed by publicly known rules;
5. provide responsive government;
6. provide honest government ... [with] no rents to favour and position;
7. provide moderate, efficient, ungreedy government ... to hold taxes down [and] reduce the government's claim on the social surplus.
The striking thing about this list is how many of its points correspond to what British Indian and Colonial officials in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries believed they were doing. The sole, obvious exceptions are points 2 and 5. Yet the British argument for postponing (sometimes indefinitely) the transfer to democracy was that many of their colonies were not yet ready for it; indeed, the classic and not wholly disingenuous line from the Colonial Office was that Britain's role was precisely to get them ready.
It is a point worth emphasizing that to a significant extent British rule did have that benign effect. According to the work of political scientists like Seymour Martin Lipsett, countries that were former British colonies has a significantly better chance of achieving enduring democratization after independence than those ruled by other countries. Indeed, nearly every country with a population of at least a million that has emerged from the colonial era without succumbing to dictatorship is a former British colony. True, there have beeen many former colonies which have not managed to sustain free institutions: Bangladesh, Burma, Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe spring to mind. But in a sample of fifty-three countries that were former British colonies, just under half (twenty-six) were still democracies in 1993. This can be attributed to the way that British rule, particularly where it was 'indirect,' encouraged the formation of collaborating elites; it may also be related to the role of Protestant missionaries, who clearly played a part in encouraging Western-style aspirations for political freedom in parts of Africa and the Caribbean.
In short, what the British Empire proved is that empire is a form of international government that can work -- and not just for the benefit of the ruling power. It sought to globalize not just an economic but a legal and ultimately a political system too.
How can this overview be squared with Dalrymple's? I think there are two important elements to the reconciliation. The first is the role of property rights, that foremost of Landes' prescriptions. British rule in Africa in fact did little to introduce the Anglospheric concept of property rights. Check out Roger Bate's article on the problem with land and water rights in South Africa
, for example, or a host of other articles by Africans at the International Policy Network
. Most African property rights remain in the hands of tribal elders, so providing no incentive (or ability) to exploit your own property for personal gain. This leads to the problems Dalrymple eloquently describes. It was a failure of colonialism (perhaps caused as much by premature British withdrawal as anything else), but it was not one that happened everywhere.
Second, it is important to note Ferguson's terminology when he says there have been many former colonies which have not managed to sustain free institutions
. Most of the Dictators have actively undermined British institutions, rather than exploited them. Mugabe's greatest hindrances to his rapacity has been the existence of an independent legal system and a free press. He has therefore had to remove them in a painstaking manner, which he has been able to accelerate recently. But where the institutions entered public consciousness as part of their national identity, they have been valuable tools in stopping dictatorship and, in one case, Kenya, enabled that happy people to overthrow a dictatorship peacefully. It is not surprising that so many of the dictators have claimed to be socialist, because gave them an ideological basis for dismantling the Landes system that would thwart them, or nationalist, so that they could taint the British systems as bad for the country simply because they were British. Many, of course, were both.
So I do not think that the problem is quite as simple as Dalymple would have us believe. The Anglospheric system that the British exported works, time and time again, when it is allowed to work, and when its basic roots of property rights and individual liberty are allowed time to grow.
This is where we come to the lessons for Iraq. Fareed Zakaria has another interesting article in this week's Newsweek, How to Wage the Peace
. It is full of insights into how we might ensure democracy takes root in Iraq, not least this observation from Paddy Ashdown on the lessons of Bosnia:
Paddy Ashdown, the British politician who was appointed “czar” of Bosnia, admits that administrators there got the sequence wrong: “We thought that democracy was the highest priority, and we measured it by the number of elections we could organize. The result even years later is that the people of Bosnia have grown weary of voting. In addition, the focus on elections slowed our efforts to tackle organized crime and corruption, which have jeopardized quality of life and scared off foreign investment.” “In hindsight,” he wrote, “we should have put the establishment of the rule of law first, for everything else depends on it: a functioning economy, a free and fair political system, the development of civil society, public confidence in police and the courts.”
It is precisely that which we should be willing and dedicated to achieve. We must re-establish the rule of law, and not just any law, but a common law system predicated on property rights, personal liberty and security, and contract law. We have the advantage in Iraq that teh country had been secular for many years before Saddam turned to fundamentalism, which I think Dr Johnson would recognize as the true last refuge of the scoundrel. We must use this in resisting calls for the imposition of Sharia law, which would surely spell doom for any attempts to democratize Iraq. From there we should follow Landes' prescriptions, and resist any calls for a quick fix, so that true civil society is established and the people are able to recognize knaves from the honest men they need. If the basic rights of the people and responsibilities of government are established, a true liberal democracy has every chance of taking root in Iraq. The mistakes of Africa should not be repeated in Arabia. And if that means that the coalition is in it for the long haul, so be it. It will require tremendous courage and dedication from the people and governments of the coalition, but they will be thanked for those qualities by history.