Government, What For?

“The more corrupt the state, the more it legislates.” Thus said Tacitus, Roman senator. In Mexico, the government is weak, weighty, ostentatious, and very noisy, but not at all effective although it, yes indeed, has an interminable proclivity for legislating. The evidence is everywhere: in the poor performance of the economy; the violence; the lack of punctuality; the insecurity; the traffic. Our representatives and senators promote themselves on the radio, issuing statements such as the following: “In the Senate of the Mexican Republic, we recognize that there is much criminality and so we legislate one thing or another,” as if legislating itself would resolve the problems.


In the last decades, we have gone from a heavy and abusive government, but one with some capacity (though waning) of action, to one that is simple heavy and useless. The government has a presence everywhere but that does not make it functional or effective. To the contrary: what the country urgently needs is a redefinition of the governmental function and the development of the capacities that would allow it to confront the monster of crime that stalks the population, to create conditions for getting the economy up and running and, in general, to improve coexistence in the society.


Here are three examples of the absurdity that characterizes us and that evidence how far we are from possessing an efficient system of government:


  • In the fiscal ambit, governing is driven by circulars sent at any and all times. Ministry of Finance functionaries emit these for everything, never recognizing the uncertainty that their acts of authority generate. Stable surroundings comprise a necessary condition for economic development, and this is altered when the rules of the game change without prior notice, explanation, warning, or justification.


  • Discretionary powers are an essential instrument of the governmental function: it is the means by which the authority adapts to the changing economic, electoral, or political environment. Given that it is impossible to anticipate or legislate on every possible contingency, governmental functioning would be impossible without discretionary powers. The problem is that, in Mexico, there is no difference between discretionary powers and arbitrariness: they are de facto synonyms because the authority employs its discretionary faculties with no restriction. That is what allows a governor to manipulate the elections in his state, or in any other; that the regulatory entities impose sanctions with no legal foundation; or that there can be thousands of deaths without a sole judicial inquiry. Authority in Mexico is absolutely arbitrary.


  • In the case of the regulatory entities (Telecommunications, Competition, Energy, etc.), we have everything but clear rules. These entities make decisions based on the commissioners’ criteria, while the powers of their president in each of these are so vast that their personal preferences tend to prevail. The case of the Federal Competition Commission is paradigmatic because the theme is so central for our development:  laws come and laws go, but the only things that advance are the whims of those who define the priorities. It is evident that we require appropriate legislation, one that is comparable with those of the developed nations of the planet, but we also require a structure of authority with proper checks on their power, such as that existing in those countries. The theme is the same as in the rest: our problem is not one of laws, but rather one of the propensities for abuse of the powers of the authority, which situates them on a plane of permanent arbitrariness. Without limits, any authority becomes just another excuse for arbitrary decisions, the opposite of what a modern and institutionalized country requires.


To institutionalize implies limiting authority, that is, establishing rules that delineate and pre-establish the limits of its action. Discretionary powers are indispensable, but for governmental acting not to be arbitrary, it must be mapped out by rules known to all a priori.


Likewise, the dynamic history that has preceded us cannot be ignored. Thanks to the hyperinflation of the Weimar era, in Germany the Bundesbank is highly orthodox and focuses exclusively on combating inflation. The history of England is very distinct: memories of the poverty described by Dickens and inscribed on the collective conscience of that nation led to that, for the Bank of England, inflation may be important, but it should remain on a par with growth. Our history is not as extreme as that of these European nations, but the era of financial crises marked the country and became an essential definition of the financial function, the reason for which the central bank takes inflation control so seriously. In contrast with other governmental functions, this illustrates that there is a capacity for learning.


In the world there are many governmental models, each emanating from its own social reality. In France, the government possesses a very broad presence in the economy as owner and administrator of the most diverse of enterprises. In England, the government commands a much more modest presence. But both countries share a common characteristic: they have an effective and functional government. We debate and legislate a great deal about the nature of government, but we do not have a functional government. The old system was characterized by a government that worked under these circumstances but, as illustrated by the political and economic crises that have confronted the country since 1968, it left off being effective until it ended up practically in collapse.

At nearly two sexennial periods from the first alternation of parties in the presidency, it would be time to give form to a new system of government. This could be done in two ways: with a great restatement of its structures, or with a correction of some of its most dysfunctional parts. In a perfect world, it would be ideal to effect a grand redefinition, as the Spanish did in their Constitution of 1978. However, the Spanish example is not applicable because Spain had a functional government to begin with; what the Constitution did was to modify the relative weights of the distinct components of the State. We must start from the recognition that our system of government does not satisfy even the most basic of needs. Attempting to modify everything via the legislative pathway would not resolve the problem.


Electoral times are always propitious for discussion of the challenges facing us. Perhaps there is nothing more grave and pernicious than the disorder emanating from the disorder in the organization, structure and legitimacy of power in society. Everything derives from that: until limits to the politically powerful are not established and the powerful develop the capacity and vision to institutionalize that power, our governmental system will continue to be what it is: dysfunctional and ineffectual.