Will Mexico Reach Modernity?

Luis Rubio

How is the success of a society measured? Is being successful the same as being modern? The difference perhaps was insignificant some decades ago, but today it is possible to differentiate successful from modern countries. Maybe the question for Mexicans now that the government is ending its first year is whether the country is in line to be as successful as it is modern or whether it will proceed in an attempt to be successful and nothing more.

Protagoras, a fifth century B.C. thinker, argued that men by definition require standards of behavior because without this they would be unable to live in community. In the absence of the Bible or its equivalent, tradition played a predominant role in the determination of these standards, the reason why attacks on tradition from radical thinkers like Socrates or Diogenes generated such mistrust. Contrariwise, Aesop’s Fables would serve to reinforce the sense of community. Which would be the relevant standard for a nation at the beginning of the XXI Century?

China is perhaps the best paradigm of a country that has achieved being successful in countless measures but that confronts fundamental dilemmas that it may not be able to resolve without changing its own measure of success. At a conference that I attended recently, a scholar from India stated that his country is not modern because it is very poor, but that if it overcomes its poverty it could be a modern country, while China could be successful but never modern. The distinction that he made was profound: for a nation to be modern it must accept certain basic standards of behavior and certain metrics of development. The fact of growing fast, as has been the case of China in recent years, can contribute to generating conditions for modernity but it is not the equivalent of achieving it.

Success can be measured with comparable statistics: growth, employment, educative levels, productivity, miles of highway, international reserves, and other objective measurements that permit evaluation of the degree of advancement in absolute as well as in relative terms. That is the simplest measurement employed for determining the performance of a government or the satisfaction of its population. A successful nation advances on these fronts and satisfies the most basic needs. If it is extraordinarily successful it attains raising the population’s living standards, improving the distribution of income and maintaining a virtuous circle within these parameters.

What is not evident is whether systematic improvement in all of these measurements would be sustainable without changing other things in the functioning of the society in general. Going back to China, the most frequent debates about the future of this country refer to the viability of its political structure in view of the systematic improvement of the economic levels of a growing portion of the population. Some affirm that the Chinese culture possesses exceptional traits and that these will allow sustaining its political system without changes despite the development of its society. Others espouse the principle that, in the basics, all societies are similar and that, sooner or later, the Chinese will confront fundamental dilemmas concerning the viability of their current politico-economic structure.

Time will tell how China evolves, but what is indisputable when one thinks of the development of Mexico over the past decades, is that there are structural limits that impede transcending the thresholds of the possible under the present structure. For example, it is not coincidental that private investment, domestic and foreign, is found well below its potential. It is also not coincidental that most investments are made with much shorter times of maturation than take place in other latitudes. The same can be said for the investment cycle: it typically follows the six-year calendar because everything depends on the trust that a person -a president or governor- inspires more than the strength of the institutions.

The key to the future is found in the latter. The part of the economy that observes significant investment growth is that which is protected by international treaties, above all NAFTA, which is nothing other than an institution that confers guarantees, thus certainty on the investor.  Where there are institutions that do not depend on persons the country prospers.

The point I am attempting to illustrate here is that success depends on the country becoming modernized and this implies the construction of strong institutions that transform the country and the society. It is not possible to conceive of Mexico as a successful country while we continue not having, for example, a police system that the population respects and perceives as professional. The same is true of the judiciary: without mechanisms to settle disputes and administer justice, no country can claim to be modern.

In other words, modernity is a cultural matter that is the consequence of the integral development of the society. The case of the growth of the middle class is suggestive: the country has achieved consolidating a middle class in terms of its capacity to consume, but it will be middle class and successful not when that population has a little more money to spend but only when it also has the educative and cultural level that permits it to exercise informed judgment in social and political affairs.

A country engrossed in itself, like China is at present, cannot advance toward the adoption of rules and standards that all modern and democratic societies consider essential in ambits ranging from international trade to citizen rights and respect for others. Whether for good or for bad, the Chinese government does not see relevance in these measures for their society.

The government is beginning to confront these dilemmas, implicitly or explicitly, in every decision that it is making, and the way it responds to them in the coming future will be key. The road that has led us to where we are has been tortuous and complex and the natural temptation is to return to what was and that, in a nostalgic look over one’s shoulder, could appear to have worked well. The problem is that what was possible in the past is no longer possible today. Of course numberless errors have been committed throughout the past decades, but the only wager possible is that of building a modern country.

Perhaps what best illustrates our problems is the fact that our great weaknesses are found in the appalling quality of our governmental structures and institutions. The country continues to have a medieval system of government, incapable of heading a project of transformation.  The challenge lies at home, essentially in what the PRI constructed in the past.