What the West Can Still Offer the World

The robustness of Western governance derives from a judicial and political order whose legitimacy resides in binding those who govern to the same laws as other citizens. It is this legacy, in large part, which still inspires populations from all over the world with a desire to live in the West.

In a world in which citizens are increasingly willing to surrender their freedoms to protect their comforts, it is important to recognize what sets the Western political trajectory apart from other currents of human history.

The robustness of Western governance derives from a judicial and political order whose legitimacy resides in binding those who govern to the same laws as other citizens. It is this legacy, in large part, which still inspires populations from all over the world with a desire to live in the West.

We weren’t always so lucky. The great French medievalist Marc Bloch observed that the disintegration of order that engulfed Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire was attributable to the inability of populations to conceive of political ties beyond those that arose from personal contacts. Fealty to one’s local lord or sovereign conferred certain protections, rights, and benefits that could not be otherwise obtained.

Fortunately, the West transitioned to a world in which abstract ties and civic values -- the bonds that render individuals subordinate to a system of government -- gave order to society. Yet in most of the world, the social bonds that matter are still to personal chiefs who exercise the power of life and death without accountability to wider authority. In such environments, a credible state -- one capable of mitigating the risks its populations face -- will not emerge.

This disintegration of order is occurring in places such as Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Many parts of the world, in fact, depend on personal fealty as the kind of relationship that protects against risk and uncertainty.  In highly modernized countries, such ties of dependency still exist but primarily in small groups operating outside the law such as drug cartels, street gangs and the Mafia.

Europeans have remarked on this difference as a key barrier to the assimilation of recently arrived immigrant populations. The new arrivals have known only one degree of freedom -- that of choosing a master. Thus the question “why not stay and fight the tyranny in your country?” has little meaning. For most of these refugees, there is no moral supremacy that accrues to putting one’s life on the line. There has never been a state representing a higher order to die for. Assad’s armed forces fight for the private benefits -- not the public goods -- which their personal loyalty confers.

When offering remedies for countries in disorder, Western donors like the United States, Britain, Germany, and the Nordic countries tend to prioritize the spread of democracy and the rule of law. But what good are courts to a population that has no way to enforce a settlement against a more powerful opponent? What does an election mean when it only becomes a license to plunder public resources and reward the politically connected?

Even when citizens of some of the world’s poorest nations are able to elect their governments, access to state services comes still primarily through personalized ties to power brokers. Laws and procedures may exist, but these will have little effect until the mentality and behavior of the population is transformed.

That will not change as long as leaders use their civil service to allocate positions as patronage and payback for loyalty. Each administration puts into place its own followers; the result is a bloated bureaucracy, a ballooned state budget, fiscal destress, and the inability to offer basic services to its population. Patronage dilutes the accountability of civil servants and undermines the transparency of bureaucratic procedures in countries as diverse as Togo, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Argentina. Deep layers of political appointments can be found in Greece, Italy, Portugal, Georgia, and much of Latin America. Illicit payments to politicians for lucrative bureaucratic postings are commonplace in Pakistan, India, and Brazil.

A modern state must have at its disposal the bureaucratic machinery and educated personnel that derive authority from impartial service to the state.

China has a highly capable state; it meets many of the basic needs of its population and has shown it can manage a modern economy. But there is one omission: any institution that can protect individuals from submission to that state’s unilateral power. In this respect, modern Chinese state rule is not unlike the rule of its ancient emperors, who were unconstrained by the terms of any engagement with groups of constituents.

In the West, we benefit from the historic fact that we have learned to reconcile the coexistence of contradictory principles: the unity of the state with constraints on the arbitrary expression of that unity. We fight a constant battle to maintain that balance of rules and discretion, and succeed because of highly effective institutional frameworks and a public ethos that safeguards those institutions.

Indeed, a common fundamental cause of almost all of the endemic disorder we face is the need to build up conditions favorable to a concentration of public authority in the state. But the West has a special bequest -- a tradition of strong but limited government -- in which institutions exist that dispose political leaders to respect and abide by the limits on their power.

Disorder and ties of dependence have not been the norm in the West for a very long time. As we are beginning to feel strain of the constant and painful insecurity found in global disorder, now is the time to consider what sets us apart. Globalization may be a source of fabulous commercial opportunities, but do we want to inspire the world with consumer goods or with our struggle to preserve and diffuse fundamental rights against all odds?