Liberalism, Rory Stewart, and Overreaching Aid
That’s the sound of crickets. It’s been quiet here. Two reasons. First, I embarked on a Ottawa – Toront0 – Frankfurt – Dubai flight last week only to have to turn around and head right back to Canada. All tallied, some 96 hours of travel with only one short sleep in a bed. This really ground me down and left me far less garrulous than usual.
Second, it’s back to school at work, in the sense that everyone’s in the office, all sorts of new projects are launching, the board is meeting, new staff are starting, and as much as I enjoy this blog, my day job can be demanding.
But then I come across something like this, and I immediately drop everything and stand fixated. In my morning paper was a short op ed on Kenneth Minogue. A professor from my alma mater, the London School of Economics, Kenneth Minogue is famous for writing the 1963 political philosophy classic “The Liberal Mind” which traced the history of liberalism as the belief that it is governments role and even destiny “to provide every man, woman, child and dog with the conditions of the good life.” This book has remained on college reading lists for almost 50 years, and Minogue has now just published a (self) rebuttal.
In “The Servile Mind“, the author argues that the triumphalism of modern liberal government has gone too far. In providing for the well-being of the public, the nanny-state has emerged which has far surpassed the ideal or even the useful role imagined by liberal polititicians in the early 20th century.
In this new book, Minogue writes:
“I am of two minds about democracy, and so is everyone else. We all agree that it is the sovereign remedy for corruption, war and poverty in the Third World. We would certainly tolerate no other system in our own country. Yet most people are disenchanted with the way it works. One reason is that our rulers now manage so much of our lives that they cannot help but do it badly. They have overreached. Blunder follows blunder”
This idea seized me, I set down my coffee, and instantly thought of two examples of this overreaching. In Ontario, where I live when I’m not in New York, the provincial government has yet to meet an ill that cannot be addressed by a new law. Week after week new examples pile up. Every time there is some singular unfortunate (but statistically freakish) tragedy, new legislation is rolled out to protect the hapless citizenry. As a result, our dinner party guests are subjected to long rants about toboggan helmet laws and cell-phone restrictions.
But secondly, I thought of the aid industry which has likewise never met a problem which some good-governance project can’t address. This is something first brought to my attention by my friend Rory Stewart of walking-across-Afghanistan, governing-Maysan-province-in-Iraq, running-the-Harvard-Carr-Center, being-elected-to-parliament fame. Rory became rather unpopular in Afghan and aid circles a few years ago when he began to argue that the international aid community has overreached itself in Afghanistan. (This article in Time magazine does a good job of explaining his views) Rory believed that we were trying to focus on things we were not good at (like creating democratic institutions) at the expense of the few things we were not good at (like digging wells, or fighting terrorists). As a result, we set ourselves unattainable goals in Afghanistan, namely the creation of a liberal, democratic, and almost Scandinavian government. Furthermore, in struggling to achieve these unattainable goals, we have wasted billions that could be better applied to realistic efforts such as reducing infant mortality, or building schools.
I did not agree with Rory at the time, but I’ve now come over to his way of thinking. As with the aid industry’s insistence on inverting Maslow’s pyramid of needs, we have sought to overextend ourselves in thinking that good governance projects can cure everything in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Timor. In fact, liberal democracy has it’s limits. As Minoque argues, it has its limits in Britain and Canada and the United States. And, as Rory argues, it has its limits in Afghanistan.