There are two ways to focus on the challenges facing Mexico at present. The first is to assume that the Rule of Law reigns for everybody without distinction. The other is to set out from the recognition that what does exist does not work and requires a transformation. The two pathways constitute avenues with possibilities, but everything depends on the port one wishes to arrive at. Dante offers a reading on what the alternative implies: “The path to paradise begins in hell”, he tells us in a well-known passage. In another he affirms that “midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost”. Whichever the preferred perspective might be, both imply insinuating that the country is facing fundamental predicaments.
In recent months note has been made of all types of proposals for a solution. These vary depending on the personal experience or outlook that motivates the proponent: some are radical in content, others ambitious in their reach and some clearly entail a personal interest. Diagnoses also vary, quite paradoxical in a society in which it’s been said that the country’s problems were perfectly diagnosed and that all that was required was the approval of a set of reforms (“The Reforms,” with capital letters) to attain Nirvana. As it turns out we have lived through the period of greatest legislative “turbulence” from the existence of the standing Constitution and, however, the problems have not receded from view.
With this I do not wish to criticize the reforms ratified but rather the misleading tendency in vogue today of assuming fads as certainties and changes on paper transformed realities. Thus the national discussion has become one of diagnoses: whether the problem comprises the reforms themselves or the corruption, impunity or the political class, the political parties or the absence of the Rule of Law. Some are symptoms, others potential causes, but it is essential to determine which is which and what is what prior to continue grooming pacts, passing laws or pretending that the solution to such a complex situation lies just around the corner. The only thing that’s evident is that all of these are elements -components- of an intricate photograph with which the nation –and, above all the government- must deal.
In his most recent book, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama offers some viewpoints that can be useful for understanding the complexity of the moment Mexico is currently traversing. His main conclusion is that the order of the factors indeed does change the product, but not deterministically: for a country to achieve the stability and order that allows it to progress requires a competent government as well as an effective system of checks and balances, but if the former does not exist, the latter will only serve to render the functioning of the government impossible.
Countries that first developed competent and efficient bureaucracies and then moved on to democracy, argues Fukuyama, are usually more orderly, efficient and uncorrupt, but their governments tend to be less responsive to the demands of the citizenry. The prototypical case that illustrates this example, says the author, is Germany, a country that he compares with the United States, where democracy preceded the development of a strong state. In the latter, organized citizens have enormous influence on the decision making process. The first example in the extreme would be China (very effective but not at all democratic), the example of the second Greece (very democratic but terribly dysfunctional). Where would you situate Mexico?
One way of understanding the author’s argument is observing systems of patronage: a system devoted to handing out favors ends up drowning in corruption and is highly obstinate to being reformed. Patronage, says Fukuyama, is an “ambiguous phenomenon” because it is “more democratic” but also “systematically corrupting”. Governments dedicated to constructing, nurturing and exploiting clienteles generate incentives so that everyone can see politics as an opportunity for personal gain.
When Fukuyama evaluates underdeveloped countries he says that the difference between nations such as Korea, Vietnam or China and those of the African sub-Sahara is that the former possess “competent, high-capacity states,” in contrast with those that “do not possess strong state-level institutions”. The key, says the author, resides in institutional strength and competence, not on any ideological or ethical (that is, cultural) orientation. Where there are strong institutions, there is a competent government, and vice versa.
Whatever the correct diagnosis of the Mexican problematic, it is clear that the country’s weakness in institutional matters is legendary, which leads us to two crucial questions: first, is the government willing to confront a problematic that it didn’t have on its radar and that sailed right past it in recent months? Second, will Mexican society have the capacity to accept that some advances in democratic matters are also part of the problem because some of them make impossible the existence of a functional and accountable government?
With respect to the first, the country lacks governmental capacity even for the most elemental: security, justice, infrastructure and the disposition for generating certainty among the population. Regarding the second, the ability of the government to approve reforms would be sufficient for a great exercise of leadership that permits discerning between the desirable and the necessary. What’s not expendable is a functional and functioning government.