Wars, Guns, and Votes
Why democracy is slow to take root in the Third World.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.