Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Why do some governments work?

What makes democracy work? (National Civic Review; Spring 1993, v82) Robert Putnam writes: "What explains why some governments work and others do not?"

"We considered many possible answers: wealth, education, party politics, urbanization, social stability, and so on. None of these answers fits the facts; none was directly correlated with government performance. The right answer surprised us, though it likely would not have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville, that astute 19th-century French observer of democracy in America: What best predicted good government in the Italian regions was choral societies, soccer clubs and co-operatives. In other words, some regions were characterized by a dense network of civic associations and an active culture of civic engagement, whereas others were characterized by vertical patron-client relations of exploitation and dependence, not horizontal collaboration among equals."

"Vertical patron-client relations of exploitation and dependence" -- oddly I'm reminded of my wondering about the thoughts of those final-days kings of Easter Island as they gave the order to cut down the last of their life-giving trees in a bid to win a one-upmanship contest -- there is a lesson on Putnam's essay, it is a lesson in intention: before we can move towards a better government, we, our citizens, businesses and policy makers, must intend to get there. Yes, for the astute readers out there who loath fuzzy 'new agey' stuff, that is correct, this is The Secret, but put a better way: habits follow intentions, results follow habits. Putnam's Choral Societies are more than just a passing Grade 10 glee-club experience, it is a recipe for a cultural infrastructure that needs to begin as young as possible, and must offer supporting infrastructure all through all the years that follow.

It is the everyday normalcy of the habit of the choral cooperation and trust that becomes the fabric of community credit:

The Renaissance was a direct consequence of the economic boom, which was a direct consequence of credit, which was in turn a direct consequence of the trust expressed in tower societies and choral societies. Civic engagement paid handsome dividends ... I originally thought that these fortunate communities had more choral societies because they were wealthy. After all, I thought, poor peasants don't have time or energy to spend singing. But if we look closely at the historical record, it becomes dear that I had it exactly backwards. Communities don't have choral societies because they are wealthy; they are wealthy because they have choral societies -- or more precisely, the traditions of engagement, trust and reciprocity that choral societies symbolize ... None of this would appear in standard economics textbooks, of course, but our evidence suggests that wealth is the consequence, not the cause, of a healthy civics.

Robert David Putnam (born 1941 in Port Clinton, Ohio) is a political scientist and professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is also visiting professor and director of the Manchester Graduate Summer Programme in Social Change, University of Manchester (wikipedia)