Luis Rubio

Long after the promotors of “great” changes imagine they would, the consequences appear, generally the product of not recognizing that human beings learn and respond in the face of the stimuli presented to them. G.K. Chesterton described the phenomenon with an example: “Don’t remove a fence before you know why it was put up in the first place.” His argument was that it is imperative to understand the reason why things are the way they are to not end up leaving them worse.

Many of the great changes in history, those that take shape in the long term, begin with mundane decisions and good intentions. Programs are adopted, legislations are approved and the rulers who promote them are applauded as heroes. Everything progresses as if it all were about advances inexorably destined to lead to prosperity. The greater the ambition of those changes, the greater the kudos, but also the risks: there’s always the possibility that removing the fence, in Chesterton’s metaphor, would create sequelae that undermine the future.

In their haste to transform everything, the promotors of progress tend to lose sight of the fact that what is popular is not always benign and that what appears to be benign is frequently weighty with unanticipated messages for the rest of the population. This becomes more acute when the transformer’s claim derives from unmovable dogmas that have nothing to do with the milieu to which they purport to apply. The average Mexican has for centuries endured grandiloquent rulers and perfectly recognizes the implicit risks, but also understands how limited their options are, so they delimit themselves to the transaction-at-hand: perquisites conferred for a vote or, in the present case, cash-transfers in payment for popularity.

The president prides himself on the great feats he has achieved or that he is advancing. Cancelling the airport without gauging the consequences for the long-term development of the country, constructing infrastructure projects that are not likely to afford significant long-term benefits, legitimizing corruption for those close at hand, eliminating key regulatory entities, setting upon judges that rule against the government’s wishes or wiping out lodestar academic institutions. The day-to-day theatrical scenario facilitates decisions based on rigged surveys, mockeries and attacks, but the population recognizes these for what they are, and no resentment is sufficient, in the long term, to substitute for employment, opportunities and prosperity.

Actions and decisions that entail consequences as they alter the perceptions of the population, modify the fate of the country and cancel its options of development. It is clear that the president’s objective is precisely to undermine what already exists; but it should be similarly clear that not everything that exists is bad and that acting thus inevitably entails pernicious consequences. And the greater the pretention of the change, the worse the sequelae.

When a president quashes the autonomy of an entity or impedes the transparency of his government’s investments his message is evident: in the words of Lord Acton, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Not all corruption involves money: impunity is also corruption.

Endeavoring to predetermine the future, control the variables in ongoing fashion, including the supposed presidential successor (whether male or female) is the oldest trick in the book of Mexican politics. Rarely has a president in the country’s history not ventured this, but only Plutarco Elías Calles (1920s), the system’s founder, was able to and in circumstances that cannot be reproduced. The exercise is in good measure futile, but not for that reason does it not embody consequences. And that is the relevant issue: for three decades, one government after another devoted itself to building an institutional framework to grant certainty to the populace with respect to the future, starting with the NAFTA. Without doubt, there were excesses and errors along the way and very few of the resulting institutions enjoy full popular legitimacy, which explains the ease with which the president dismantled them.

But at present the consequence of his way of acting has brought home the inexistence of investment and the swiftness with which many industrial processes (key for exports) are becoming obsolete, especially due changes in energy policy. If ongoing polarization causes confusion, the future ends up being overly uncertain, a circumstance never of service to the continuity of the status quo which the president desires. Mexico underwent something much the same at the beginning of the eighties and something the size of the TLC was required to restore a sense of certainty. The chief question for the future is what will be required in this instance, how big will it have to be?

A foreigner, an old-time observer of Mexican politics, said that Mexico suffers from a nodal deficiency: “Either you have the rule of law or you don’t. And if you do not, people fall back on the rule of power, on bribery –a form of financial power- or on criminality to obtain what they should be entitled to under the law.”

Instead of moving toward legality, for which this government was exceptionally endowed, what it has done is promote corruption and criminality. The consequences will not be long in coming.