Some days ago, surfing TV channels in a hotel room, I found myself watching a discussion program on TVE, the official Spanish television network. The matter being debated dealt with a crime that had occurred in Malaga. What was interesting about the debate was the implicit frame of reference that characterized the discussion. The matter in question was the rape of a mentally disabled woman by a group of men who had abducted the woman and taken her to an apartment. Hours later, the police were finally able to locate the woman and take her to a hospital. In the discussion two things caught my attention because of their transcendence for Mexico. First, the taking for granted that the police would be diligent and competent in locating the woman. Second, in the words of one of the program participants, citing from memory, “But what were these men thinking: they are going to be arrested and all would end up in jail”. None of these premises would be possible in Mexico.
Beyond its crisis, transitory or structural, the great difference between a developed country such as Spain and another like Mexico lies in the quality of government. A government has basic responsibilities that constitute the essence of the society’s capacity to function effectively and successfully. While there are many definitions of what these responsibilities are and different positions on which those functions should be, no one would dispute the essential: public security, the rules of the game for economic activity, justice and the physical as well as the institutional infrastructure required for a country to work. Some would limit governmental functions to the basic (“the best government is the one that governs least”), while others would prefer an integral “welfare state”, but all would accept that an effective government is a crucial factor for the functioning of a country. In Mexico we are quite given to entering into ideological discussions on these matters while not even having the basics, those which persons participating in the Spanish panel discussion took for granted.
We Mexicans speak of economic growth, competitiveness, human rights, justice and other desirable objectives but we do not recognize that we lack the essential –a system of government- capable of contributing to the achievement of these. Grandiose legal reforms that establish new citizen rights and, in many of these reforms, new obligations for the government are approved, but the government’s total incapacity –physical, institutional and financial- to achieve these is not recognized. We speak of corruption in a moralistic tone that would make it appear that we never see such an act and, of course, would never be involved in one. The essentials –the structure, functions and capacity for action of the government- do not exist or, when they do, are very inferior to those that are necessary. Worse if we look at other levels of government: states and municipalities.
Mexico confronts two fundamental challenges with regard to the governmental function. One is concerned with the quality of the government and the other with its capacity to process conflicts and to create conditions for permanent prosperity. The former has to do with administration and its objectives; the latter with the strength of its institutions and their checks and balances.
Historically, the Mexican Government was relatively successful when it exercised centralized control and imposed its authority on the population as well as on other factors that wield political and administrative power. The eras of Porfirio Díaz and the PRI in its good years bear factual testimony to this assertion, but that was possible in the era before globalization and the network of world relationships that are the mainstay of the population of today. In the absence of reliable institutions and of a federal structure with individuals compelled to be accountable, the country suffered through diverse ills: revolutions, uprisings, instability and/or poor economic performance. The instinct of the Peña administration toward centralization of power is not by chance: it concerns a logical response to the challenge. The relevant question is whether centralization will be an instrument or an objective: if it is an instrument, it could be employed to construct a new institutional regime that allows for an era of stability and prosperity; if it is an objective, the only thing it will achieve will be the imposition of a temporary order that, as we have seen so many times in the past, tends to be short in duration, if it ends well at all.
With respect to the administrative responsibilities that correspond to the government, some things work and others don’t. For better or worse, for example, practically the totality of the country’s urban zones have potable water, drainage and electricity. The same can be said for education or the presence of police officers and courts –and multiple other services- throughout the territory. One conclusion to which this could lead is that the government “does what it can” and that if one observed diverse indices of service coverage, these have improved over time. Another way of seeing it is that services tend to be poor in quality, waste is enormous and, overall, conditions are not being created for the construction of a modern country, with better opportunities for the entire population. Both views are true and complementary: what we have is a system of government wrapped up in itself, devoted to satisfying the objectives and the interests of its members ahead of the needs of the population.
The case of the police and the administration of justice are particularly noteworthy: with very few exceptions, this is where one of the greatest lacks –and flaws- of governmental function is evidenced. The country requires a radical transformation of the focus of the function of the government: it must be conceived as a guarantor of the freedoms and rights of the population and as promoter of development, thus it must devote itself to creating conditions that make this possible. The new government vowed efficacy, something necessary but not sufficient: it’s not enough for it to “make things happen”; it also needs to see development advance. Now, with the country is stuck, it is ripe time to refocus the strategy.
Institutions are the means and the form through which a society processes conflicts and creates conditions for prosperity. Different from the governmental function, institutions, to be one, have to be permanent, that is to say, not dependent on the will of one person as occurred in the PRI era. An institution is strong when it creates rules of the game with which everyone complies. That’s the key: depersonalization and permanence.
The members of the televised Spanish panel took for granted that a government of institutions exists.That’s what we’re missing: a government that works and that doesn’t depend on who’s in power.