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The governments we want

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Having covered and observed Caribbean elections over several decades (and even participated in one 37 years ago as a Tapia candidate), I must say I have always wondered why so many political contestants are eventually proven to either be wholly incompetent or hopelessly dishonest and corrupt.

Don’t get me wrong. I will never suggest that there aren’t many honourable, decent and skilful people who offer themselves for political office…and win. In fact, I have often wondered what it would have been like to have brought some of our finest office-holders together under national unity administrations throughout the Caribbean to help fix our broken societies.

I would even risk the prima facie naïve suggestion that the best our political parties have had to offer over the years could have collectively head-off some of the mess we are now faced with.

But then, politics is all about the calibration of power dynamics. There need to be wholesome forces competing against each other to bring about a sense of balance and restraint against excesses—sometimes even when the contestation is illusory.

I suppose the social scientists would argue that this is the nature of so-called “western democratic values” and why totalitarian experiments have all failed—as indeed they have—because the political space required to pit ideas against each other is a requirement of societies that crave democracy and the freedom it portends.

Only last year, a paper written by Josh Halberstam, Richard Öhberg, Daniele Paserman, Mikael Persson, Martín Rossi and Juan Vargas for the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) attempted to answer the question: Who becomes a politician?

You know, I can’t remember what led to the search that unearthed the paper, but what I found—albeit in an almost completely different context, since they used Sweden as the political laboratory—was that there are real questions Caribbean people need to seek answers to if we are to rise above chronically poor political performance.

For example: Can our democracies attract competent leaders, while attaining broad representation? The writers of the NBER paper point to economic models which suggest that “free-riding incentives and lower opportunity costs give the less competent a comparative advantage at entering political life.”

In T&T, we would perhaps call this the “eat-ah-food” phenomenon—otherwise unaccomplished individuals with no real skills or abilities to talk about, catapulted onto the national stage with huge assignments and responsibilities, and encouraged to play the part because of the perks of office. In the wrestling ring of politics, it could perhaps be identified as “a reverse Maslow.”

Then comes the assertion that if the better endowed (intellectually and financially) “validating” elites —to abuse Lloyd Best’s unavoidable expression—are selected on the basis of perceived competence and absence of the “eat-ah-food” complex, there is more likely than not to be unevenness in the actual representation of the population.

In our context, though, it is also conceivable that both the intellectually and financially well-endowed and positioned may prove to be entirely incompetent. In T&T and among our Caribbean neighbours there are enough examples of where this has turned out to be the case.

This is why though we may wish not to give expression to this conundrum constitutionally, there perhaps needs to be, in the fashioning of our political organisations, more studious examination of the process of political selection. Such a re-examination would consider the balancing of the concept of “broad” representation against the requirement to have the best human resources at the wheel.

One huge component of all of this, of course, is the requirement of greater political education - a task none of our current political organisations has been able to sustain and one the formal education system has failed to effectively deliver.

Because our political parties are mainly dedicated campaign outfits, there appears to be little will or ability to expand their functionality in this important area.

So, while we wait, we not only get the governments we deserve, we sometimes regretfully get the ones we want.


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