Open Society

From Plato on, the idea of an open society has entailed transparency, a capacity to respond, and a government that is tolerant of and respectful toward the citizenry. Karl Popper enlarged, developed, and annotated the concept with his observations throughout the XX Century. For him, what was crucial was not the quality of the government but the capacity of the citizenry to impede the government from abusing it or from perpetuating itself in power. Thus, the pretense of establishing an open society, with transparency and checks and balances, would appear to be much more optimistic than what Popper had believed possible. In a country that has not yet achieved approximating itself to this level of civilization, perhaps the relevant question would be what happens when, despite the appearances, everything conspires against opening and transparency, even by many of those who constantly and systematically demand this.

The attraction of living in an open society is enormous and arresting. But the first obstacle that Mexico confronts in this respect is that ours is a country that is in good measure insular and engrossed in thought, above all among its elite groups. The contrast among the political class, upper-level entrepreneurs, and intellectuals with the citizen-in-the-street can be appreciated categoricallyin the matter of immigration, a factor that provides overwhelming evidence that the pedestrian, foot-soldier citizens are infinitely more cosmopolitan than their more illustrious counterparts. While a Mexican from Oaxaca who immigrated in recent years to New York without papers and lives in an environment of employment, legal, and economic uncertainty understands the functioning of the market because he/she experiences it on a daily basis, many entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and politicians reject its worth right off the bat. A greater comparison would be difficult to find.

But this is our reality. Mexican society is one that is less open and transparent than what is frequently presumed and many of the mechanisms of social interaction are defined more by their stanch nature than by their institutional functioning. I gather together some diverse examples here.

In a distinguished, provocative, intelligent, and ingenious article entitled “Kafkacyt”, published more than thirty years ago, Ruy Pérez-Tamayo argued that the institution created for the promotion of science and learning was nothing more than a bureaucratic load of rubbish devoted to sponsoring interest groups for the politicians or projects whose scientific value was evaluated by persons ignorant of the theme. Decades later, in recently adopted regulations, The Mexican National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) continues not to sponsor Master degree studies in foreign countries for diverse disciplines under the criterion that the same Master degree programs are offered in Mexico. All of us who have studied abroad know that the greatest value of engaging in this lies not in great scientific, technical, or theoretical learnings, but in the experience of living under another educative, cultural, and social system. The greatest value that a student acquires on leaving their country is the cosmopolitan perspective that, by definition, could never be acquired if they stayed. This is the reason that governments such as the Korean, the Chinese, and the Brazilian go out of their way to find spaces –in tens of thousands- for their young people in Europe or in the U.S. We want ours to study in Tuxtla. The results should not surprise us.

Another example: hundreds of public institutions annually sponsor diverse surveys, above all in the health sector. Although these institutions utilize public resources, they treat the surveys as if they were private: they’re the only ones who have access to them. In an open society, everything that is sponsored in the scientific ambit by us taxpayers is public information. But the patrimonialistic logic is implacable: public funds are considered private and are utilized for the benefit not of the country but of the individuals involved. Not very open, transparent, or cosmopolitan.

In the ambit of administration the phenomenon is ubiquitous: the government is not responsible for anything. A vehicle can undergo a serious accident because of holes in the street, the absence of streetlights, or of signs. Were this an exceptional situation, no one would worry. But because this is a country that seems at times to be more a collection of potholes laced together by pavement than duly cared-for streets, the issue is serious. How many vehicles have suffered damages, suspension breakdowns, or tire damage on the thoroughfares of the main cities? Surely thousands. However, no one is responsible. On there not being any responsibility, there is no incentive to avoid accidents, to take care of the public works, or to duly administrate these. If we were to extend the issue to temperamental changes of regulations and other bureaucratic mechanisms, the theme could be extrapolated to the entire public administration, at all levels. There is no transparency and response capacity, and interest in having this is way too scarce.

Laws and regulations are designed for special interests, which denies the quality of open society. The electoral law is one of those examples that illustrate everything that should not be because it can’t be. The notion of legislating opening and civility is a thing of beauty, but a political impossibility. Although its promoters defend it tooth and nail, the law has done nothing but hide what really takes place: it has become an incentive, in a mechanism that fosters the simulation and systematic violation of the law itself. In addition, the notion that the good and civilized behavior of campaigning politicians can come about by decree is naiveté that does not even merit commentary. What this surely will not achieve is making Mexican society more open, transparent, or civilized. For this to happen, we’d have to go in the opposite direction: liberalize, give power to the citizenry (and not to the bureaucracy), and force politicians to be accountable.

The heart of the issue lies in that the country has not experienced what is technically denominated a regime change or, at least, a paradigm change. In addition to having for decades managed problems instead of resolving them, the essential objective of our system of government (of whatever stripe of party) is to preserve in power the heirs of the Revolution and their accomplices in other parties.

What Mexico requires is the consolidation of an open society that is only possible through a regime change. Any party can promote it, but it cannot be achieved by someone simply in search of continuing to enjoy it:  a new system of government is required.

This is the true challenge for the country in the upcoming years.  One way or another, more of the same (with any party) is not the solution.