Beijing in 1980 was a shabby town. A few grand and empty avenues that led to the Forbidden City and the great Tiananmen Square, the political heart of the city. Every so often bicycles went by, these the ubiquitous people’s means of transportation, used for everything, as moving vans and to distribute all sorts of goods. Around these ceremonial centers was heaped an interminable collection of neighborhoods of tenements in diverse degrees of deterioration. I went back in 1999, incredulous before the panorama that I found: a modern city, skyscrapers, and huge traffic jams, as in any megalopolis. While Mexicans were debating about the economic model, the debt and the role of the government in development, China transformed itself. What an effective government does.
In Mexico and in many places in the world, politics has been confused with the function of the government. While it is evident that politics determines the priorities of each nation, the execution of these priorities is a distinct matter. In serious countries, the government is a factor of continuity and stability: its functionaries are permanent, in their majority career civil servants and they adhere to codes of conduct of transparency. On their part, politicians, who govern thanks to popular favor, determine which projects are built and which are not, and which criteria guide the decision making. The cities of serious countries have a professional manager who reports to an elected mayor. The same occurs in ministries and secretariats. Only third-world countries reinvent the wheel every three or six years.
This topic is the issue that motivates a new and exceptional book* seeking to explain the differences between countries that successfully confronted the crisis of the virus with respect to those that to this day are yet to understand what happened. The thesis of the work is extremely simple: Western countries had a very efficient system of government that knew how to act under normal conditions and how to respond to critical situations, but it became stagnant, got fat and was in the end ensnared by innumerable private interests, internal –political and unions, -as well as external: constructors, service operators and environmentalists.
In comparison, Singapore has morphed into the epitome of the efficacious, technically competent, and productive government that has achieved the highest per-capita income level worldwide. Many countries especially in Asia have followed the model, being capable of building meritocratic governments, with exceptionally well-trained and well-paid personnel who carry out their functions in a professional manner, as illustrated by the overwhelming success of Korea, Taiwan and, needless to say, China. Indubitably there are also efficient and competent governments in other regions, such as Germany and some Scandinavian nations. What distinguishes this passel of countries is their seriousness of purpose, competence, and the technical ability of their bureaucracies.
Most of these nations are consummate democracies, some are hybrids, and others are autocracies. What engenders their resemblance to each other is the quality of their governments. Nothing like the coronavirus for separating those who know what they are doing from the rest.
The virus is an unparalleled element of comparison because it affects all nations and persons in exactly the same manner, but each nation responds according to its own sociopolitical traits. Infrastructure is another similar case in point: nations with competent governments boast highways, high-speed trains, and ultramodern airports. Frankfurt, Beijing, Singapore, Incheon are all evident examples. None of these harbors any confusion about education, as in Mexico. In these nations the bureaucracies are continually learning and do not allow themselves to be bossed around by incompetent politicians, although they strictly uphold the priorities that these establish. The key point is that the effectiveness of a government has nothing to do with the quality of its democracy or autocracy but with its own structures and modes of organization and compensation.
In contrast with Singapore, the Mexican government was not built to be effective, but as a means for advancing the predilections of the political class, which built-in corruption as one of its missions. Despite this, during several decades after the Revolution, the government was able to confer stability on the country and create conditions for its development. All of this was lost in the populism of the seventies and in the incomplete (and on occasion inadequate) reforms of the subsequent decades. In place of correcting those errors, the present government has devoted itself to replicating the decade of the 1970s: unipersonal, ideologically determined decisions and espousing merely political objectives.
The virus crisis could not have come at a more telling moment: it exposed the accumulated lacks and deficiencies of the system of government and magnified them by the blunderings of the current one. The government that purported a change of regime ended in the muck and mire of a pandemic it was unable to fathom (and continues to be unable to fathom) and without the agents or expert personnel for emerging from it. And this without even taking public security or the growth of the economy into consideration. Time has come for paramount reforms to produce a professional and technically competent government.
*Micklethwait & Wooldridge, The Wake-Up Call