Rules and Raptors

What comes first, adequate laws for a society to function or a citizenry that complies with them? The question is not an idle one.Successful countries have one thing in common:  the fact that there are clear rules of the game -also known as laws and regulations- for all social, economic, and political actors. In some of these nations, the rules are authoritarian, in others liberal, but there indeed are rules and compliance with them is exacted: in this it doesn’t matter whether it’s China or England.

Part of the PRIist legacy in Mexico is low regard for any rule, and even more so when it is not enforced with maximum prejudice―and a cadre of officials happy not to enforce them, for a price. Perhaps this was the logic implicit in Cantinflas’s question on sitting down to engage in a game of dominoes: “Are we going to play like gentlemen or like what we are?”

What’s not evident is whether Mexicans’ disdain for rules derives from the characteristics of the rules themselves, from the nearly congenital scorn that we citizens appear to have for them (in other words, because of the culture), or because of the way the government acts. The issue is not new, as the famous phrase from the Colonial era –I obey but I do not comply- shows this to be an ancestral legacy. However, given the crucial importance that rules possess for development, it is imperative to elucidate the nature of the phenomenon.

In the Mexican capital’s Polanco neighborhood, the issue of the parking garages has been debated for decades. Thanks to the 1985 earthquake, the formerly residential neighborhood suddenly became a commercial zone. Instead of houses, it filled up in a very few years with multifamily dwellings, office buildings and commercial activity of all sorts. However much the residents’ organizations fought, the borough’s authorities increasingly licensed stores, restaurants, hotels, and businesses of all types. Very few of these budgeted for the required number of parking spaces. As far back as I can remember, the magical solution in each discussion was: make a big underground parking garage under the park. The idea is logical and makes all the sense in the world and even more so because each government head at the time made offers to build it and not to authorize more buildings or businesses. Despite this, the opposition of the neighborhood’s inhabitants has been systematic, as if they were a pack of intolerant reactionaries. The rationale of those who live there is very simple and is in radical contrast with that of someone who “visits” the place every three years, like the delegates (the local authority) do: for the neighborhood’s residents, the delegate’s word is gone with the wind because there has not been a single one who did not authorize more and more commercial activity: no agreement was worth more than the paper it was written on. Had the underground parking garage been constructed, the residents say, there would have been justification for new building permits. In one word: there are no trustworthy rules that confer certainty on the citizenry and no one believes those in authority.

Some time ago I met a man big real estate developer who decided to expand in to the US and build a mall there. He purchased the land, contracted an architect, obtained the respective permits, and put up the mall in record time. Accustomed to operating a similar concern in Mexico, his comments were always on how efficient everything had been, on the how clear the rules were and, above all, that the greater part of the paperwork was done by postal mail: no time was lost and there were no bribes. A couple of years later, one of his tenants proposed duplicating his business space, for which an architect was called in who designed the respective project. As soon as the plans were done, they were sent to the city government for approval. A week later they received a rejection notice because the plans did not comply with the rule corresponding to the number of parking spaces per square foot of construction. The businessman raced over to this office and found himself stopped in his tracks. The entrepreneur’s rejoinder to the rejection was, “But only two spaces of the total one hundred plus spaces are lacking”. The response was equally clear: if you comply with the rule the project will be authorized, if not it will be rejected. Period.

When the electoral reform was debated at the beginning of the nineties, my friend Federico Reyes-Heroles undertook a study of the diverse modalities of existing legislation and relevant institutions. As part of this, he visited the office of the electoral authority in Germany. It turned out that it was hard for him to come by an appointment and, when this was granted, he understood why: it was an administrative office that never received visitors nor did its personnel understand the need for explaining what for them was obvious: legislation exists and we do nothing other than implement it. There wasn’t even a room to receive visitors. The rules are clear and do not require complex procedures, a permanent supervising council (such as the  Federal Electoral Institute, the Mexican IFE) nor additional discussion.

The three examples portray circumstances that explain the importance of having clear rules in place that confer certainty on the citizenry, on the investor, on businesses, on the political parties, and on the country in general. After observing Brazil for some time, I can conclude that the main reason for its relative success in recent years has not so much to do with great reforms but rather with the continuity of its government that, despite the contrasting personalities of its last two presidents, Cardoso and Lula, was almost perfect. That is to say, 16 years of certainty. Clarity and certainty make miracles.

What makes a country work is the certainty of its processes. March and Olsen, two specialists, say that what makes institutions work is the routine way in which people do what they’re “supposed to do”. Simple stimuli trigger complex, standardized patterns of action without extensive analysis, problem solving, or the use of discretionary power. That is, it’s about procedures that are defined up front, known by all, and designed to give rise to clarity and certainty. When discretional powers are invoked, certainty disappears because a bureaucrat can change the rules at any time. It is in this regard that, says Oscar Arias, Costa Rica’s ex-president, “to respect democratic institutionality means much more than voting every four, five, or six years. It means understanding that there are rules of the game that do not admit exceptions”.

Back to the beginning of this piece, what comes first? Maybe our problem is that we have for centuries depended on changing authorities who possess excessive powers and who are thus incapable of conferring certainty on the citizenry. Here, as in so many other ambits, the problem is that there has not been regime change: we continue living under the scheme of centralism while everything has decentralized. Centralism died because it was inoperative. Now we must build institutions that match the reality.

a quick-translation of this article can be found at