In institutions we trust

Friday, December 2, 2016

Think of a mature democracy as a hotel. The manager and her team constitute the country's institutions, with the penthouse guests the president and his entourage.

Those on the top floor may be well behaved and stick to the hotel rules. Or they may be raucous and destructive – thumping music and obnoxious drunks. On occasions, the manager must placate the business traveler and the couple with two young children trying to get a night's sleep a few floors down.

Her penthouse guests can't be booted out on to the street as they have a controlling stake in the hotel; the best she can do is to ask them to see reason and try to keep the hotel running as smoothly as possible. In other words, doing her best to ensure the other guests enjoy their stay and minimal damage is sustained to both infrastructure and reputation.

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The analogy is not perfect but it works – just about.

Civil servants and government institutions, our hotel managers, are about as sexy as a blocked sink. But strong institutions keep a country running, they ensure vital services are delivered and rules are followed and legal certainty defended, no matter the outcome on election day. Institutions are that thick, sinewy thread of continuity. And let's not forget that they help protect against, and weed out, corruption.

We trust in our institutions, or what we often describe as "the government." We have this belief that there is a group of individuals in power keeping watch, ensuring everyone plays by the rules. We believe there are benign, apolitical watchdogs in Washington DC, in London, in Ottawa, in Tokyo, etc, that will always take care of us.

As the British political scientist David Runciman says about Donald Trump: "People voted for him because they didn't believe him. They wanted change but they also had confidence in the basic durability and decency of America's political institutions to protect them from the worst effects of that change. They wanted Trump to shake up a system that they also expected to shield them from the recklessness of a man like Trump."

Look at the UK and Brexit. Those in favor of leaving the single market wanted to lash out but they didn't want to cripple the hand of the state. They wanted to bend back the fingers, not wrench them off.

Americans and Brits have the luxury of jolting the system, thanks to their robust, mature institutions. Or let's hope they do.

In Latin America it's a different story. There is considerable variation in institutional weakness. A democracy needs a strong set of institutions if it is to function well. Chile, with its skilled bureaucrats and independent judiciary, is often cited as having the strongest. At the other end of the spectrum is Venezuela, whose civil service is extremely politicized, to the degree it constitutes a tool of the ruling socialist party. The supreme court is also politicized and, according to press reports, arbitrary detentions of dissidents are rife.

Cuba is a bit of an anomaly. There is no separation between the executive power and the civil service. The late Fidel Castro did much good in the country in terms of provision of health care and education. But freedom is curtailed, as there are also reports of political dissidents being jailed. There is no democracy, there is no free press. That is one hell of a price to pay.

Overall, weak institutions tend to give an administration a long leash, as one can see in Venezuela, and the end result is often not a pretty one. Some benefit. But most – usually all the other hotel guests – don't.

Institutions must steadily be beefed up to ensure they can withstand jolts to the system and carry out their role as that solid foundation which a strong, healthy democracy needs to thrive.

Citizens and business depend on them, dearly.