Against Nature

Luis Rubio

The saying goes that one defies nature at his own expense and risk. In economics, there is ample evidence of the risks involved in challenging the most basic principles of human behavior. The idea that government should devote its actions to reconstruct a bygone era cannot lead to anything other than failure. In plain terms, no government can survive if it disregards the context within which it attempts to conduct public affairs. 

Three moments changed the history of the world in a radical fashion: the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, the Digital Revolution. Each of those moments transformed humanity and altered all patterns and ways of life. Just as there were people making whips for horse-drawn carriages when the automobile appeared, the desire to reconstruct the lost fatherland of the past is absurd given the Digital Revolution we live in.

Each of these transformative moments in history was accompanied by dislocations. The most conspicuous and well known is the effect that the arrival of the steam engine had on production  at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Previously depending on people assisted by pack animals, production was revolutionized in a matter of years. This change left behind a trail of suffering in the form of poverty, unemployment and uneasiness. Anyone who has read the harrowing chronicles of Charles Dickens can understand the enormous human cost that these processes of change entail. The memories of such processes explain the reluctance to accept their inevitability and, above all, the impotence -of both individuals and governments- in the face of the unstoppable force of such Revolution.

The time we are living in presupposes exactly the opposite of what the current Mexican administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) intends to do. To begin with: tomorrow was yesterday. Everything is interdependent, and nothing waits for you. What happens in China or France affects everyone in the planet and can unleash actions that seemed unimaginable a minute prior. Just as Brexit practically annihilated the traditional British political parties, Mexico’s ruling party (MORENA) emerged as a movement that, in just a few years, displaced all existing political forces. Nothing is permanent anymore. The only constant certainty is that nothing is constant.

Second, the traditional educational system is no longer relevant in a world in which the skills demanded by the economy change inexorably. Mexico’s old teachers’ unions will continue to protect the interests of small groups or of the most extreme elements in the current Mexican government. However, they are nothing more than obstacles to the adjustments that today’s education needs in order to make children successful in a world they will have to faces sooner than anyone could have imagined.

In the same way, the once all-powerful Mexican government has no choice today but to manage its weakness if it wants to remain relevant. This structural weakness has nothing to do with the immediate political moment we are living in. It has to do with the way that communications, markets and citizen demands work now. The key lies in government strengthening and rendering efficient its primary functions such as security and basic services. The ambition to control everything is just a chimerical idea that defies the basic laws of nature, this is, reality. López Obrador’s predecessor in the Mexican Presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto, attempt it and one can see where he is today.

The challenge for the Mexican government today is flexibility and adaptability, not control and dogmatism. Certainly, wealth in Mexico is poorly distributed and everyday life leaves much to be desired. All this manifests itself in a nearly total shutdown of social mobility, the factor that provided Mexico decades of progress and stability during the past century. The solution is not to be found in more government spending, greater austerity or in an always elusive tax reform that solves everything. It is rather to be found in a very different use of Mexico’s public resources. If the key component for economic success is adding value through knowledge, it is  impossible not to conclude that what is urgent is a radical change of direction in the nature of the Mexican education system. Needless to say what this change could imply for the functioning of Mexico’s justice and security system as well as for the markets.

The changes that Mexico requires to build an accelerated development platform are many and undoubtedly complex. However, to achieve their objective, these changes must be compatible with the Digital Age. Authoritarianism, government control, contempt for education and rejecting the nature of the 21st century’s economy are reactionary recipes that will only impoverish Mexico. The series of reforms that the current Mexican government has undertaken, and those that it proposes to carry out in the upcoming months, are the product of nothing more than nostalgia for the past and resentment.

However one wants to measure it, all these actions will impede progress, and will provoke the opposite of  what was sought because they imply ignoring and challenging reality. It is not a good starting point to say the least.

As commendable as it might be to seek to return to a less convulsive and accelerated time, it is a futile effort that in itself defies the force of nature and that involves incommensurable risks.

* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. 

Twitter: @lrubiof