Governing Capacity

According to a long-standing idea, the problem of Mexico resides in that the laws are not complied with and that if only compliance with them were exacted, everything would work well. Behind this perception lies the notion that we have good laws but a poor system of governing. Others think that the problem resides elsewhere: something akin to the world of Luigi Pirandello, whose wife suffered from schizophrenia, and the playwright produced works that attempted to conciliate multiple degrees of reality. That is, that there are so many rules, so complicated, so discretional and so contradictory among the distinct levels of government that it is impossible to comply with the laws or that compliance be exacted for these. Whatever it might be, the population ends up adapting, surviving in the best manner possible. I ask myself whether there might be a better way of resolving our differences, thus of governing the country.

Part of the problem is the underlying conflict. Another part is the complexity that we impose upon ourselves. An essential source of the conflict of recent decades resides in this disconnect that Roger Bartra describes with precision: “Not all the people (in today’s Mexico) live in the same “now”, thus not all imagine the same future…. One of the fundamental aspects of democratic politics lies in…. the custom of contemporizing, in the sense of knowing how to live in the same epoch…in the same time…thus adapting oneself, making concessions and forging agreements”. If all Mexicans do not even live in the same time, how is it possible to establish rules likely to arouse compliance and that those who govern exact compliance with?

In other words, we have an elemental problem of political disagreement about which corrective or rectifiable attempts have been made by the adoption of an infinity of rules, laws, and levels of authority that have done nothing other than complicate everything and impede the functioning of every-day productive life. Worse, all of this has taken place within the context of a dysfunctional governmental system in which the federal structure clashes with the concentration of power and the incentives of those who govern (making themselves rich and remaining the power) with the needs of development. A better system of government is required but this is not attainable only by wanting it.

The problem is not a matter of abstraction. Daily life, for the population as well as for the world of the government, offers innumerable instances that depict frequently irresolvable dilemmas. Some governors, as recently illustrated in Michoacán, have tried the strict road of legality, only to find that applying it is not so simple and that the risks of doing so are enormous, to the extent that the precarious social and political stability can be lost in no time. Others have opted for not exacerbating the tensions, abdicating their essential responsibility of governing, as occurs with the demonstrations, marches and the taking of buildings in Mexico City, where doing nothing ‒or even protecting the protesters from the affected population – turns out to be less costly politically than exacting compliance with the law.

Corruption is the other side of the same coin. Corruption is consequence, symptom and solution, all at once, depending on the place of the “value chain” of power in which one finds oneself. For the ordinary citizen corruption is a solution to the excessive discretional power of the authority: a bribe –small or large, depending on the case- that permits one to get an inspector, a traffic officer or a bureaucrat, whose powers are vast, off one’s back is in the end a functional solution. Corruption is symptomatic of a rancid political system characterized by the existence of so many laws and rules that confer such broad powers on the authority that the potential for abuse is immense and permanent. Corruption is not resolved by greater supervision nor with a greater number of prosecutors of any stripe, because the problem is one of an excess of authority: what is urgent is to wrest discretionary faculties from the authorities and their employees in order for these not to have the possibility of abuse in their diverse ambits of competency, while simultaneously strengthening the institutions charged with order and justice.

Faced with the complexity of governing a country as complex, diverse and dispersed as Mexico, the natural inclination is, and has been historically, one of centralizing the power and increasing the faculties of the authority. The solution, as Luis de la Calle proposed in a recent conference*, lies exactly contrariwise: in opening competition, eliminating the protected spaces and changing the incentives that today favor the illegality, violence and antisocial behaviors. Although it might seem surprising, it is only with adequate incentives that Mexico will have a strong state that propitiates respect for the rights of others.

Corruption and abuse exist because there are spaces that generate what the economists call “rents”, that is, exaggerated profits that are the products of circumstances that confer exceptional advantages on certain players. These advantages can derive from the regulatory framework (when, for example, excessive faculties are granted to an inspector, which he employs for extortion; or a company, when control is awarded concerning a resource or a sector of the economy, facilitating consumer abuse) or the control of nodal points for the functioning of a determined activity(such as certain highway intersections or points of access to the U.S. in the case of drugs). In both instances, it is the fact thatsomeone has too much control, or enormous faculties that permit deciding who lives and who dies, which in turn determines the existence of illegality, conflict and violence.

The proposal is very simple: control of processes and decisions generates profits for a few and this, in turn, creates incentives and enormous amounts of money to protect the latter. If the protections and subsidies are done away with and if the discretional faculties, nearly ubiquitous in the country, are reduced, the incentives will change radically. With different incentives it is possible to begin to construct an effective system of government buttressed by solid institutions.

This comprises a complex matter that requires much analysis, but it appears evident that the route of more controls is contrary to that of a better and more efficient system of government. In times when paradigms are debated it is necessary to think differently because simply doing more, even more efficiently, of the same implies ending up in the same place. A modern country requires a modern system of government. There is no greater challenge, but also an opportunity that is greater still.