Getting Rid of the Tyrant But Not the Tyranny

At RealClearWorld Martin Van Staden notes with apparent dismay that reforming Zimbabwe requires more than ousting its long-time ruler, Robert Mugabe:

The end of Robert Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe has sparked hope among the people and the Zimbabwean diaspora. It is unfortunate, however, that the personality of Mugabe, rather than Zimbabwe’s dearth of institutions, has been declared as the principle barrier to the country’s progress. Zimbabweans don’t need simply to trade one despot for another. They need real property rights and a limited government.

but I’m afraid that he doesn’t realize the magnitude of the problem. Governments are like fruit trees or grave vines. They must be grafted onto native root stock to thrive and when a country has no native institutional basis for an independent court system, the rule of law, or the protection of minority rights it is unlikely that anything that we would recognize as a liberal democratic government will flourish there.

Mr. Van Staden observes, correctly, that the War of the American Revolution was exceptional:

A constant mistake made in postcolonial societies is to grant the incoming revolutionary regime broad powers to correct wrongs of the colonial past. One of the exceptions to this rule was when the United States was decolonized in 1776. The liberators recognized that the Constitution was not a transient instrument meant to fix the present problems faced by society, and thus appreciated that it needed to constrain the potential tyranny of future regimes. They created a political dispensation that has more or less survived for over 200 years by consciously setting out to limit government. Government was not to be empowered, but rather the people.

but I don’t think he recognizes how exceptional. The American Revolution was a conservative one in the sense that colonials thought they had the rights of Englishmen and sought to restore them. They didn’t blame all of their problems on colonialism. By the time the Revolution broke out the institutions on which the new Republic were founded had developed over a period of centuries.

I don’t have a pat solution for Zimbabe and the other countries of sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East or South America or even Russia, Romania, or Hungary. They need better institutions and those don’t grow overnight. My concern is more with my own country where many want to counter the failing of corrupt, venal, and self-serving state and local governments by turning more power over to a corrupt, venal, and self-serving federal government. It’s easier to overturn old institutions than it is to grow new ones.

5 comments… add one
  • Andy

    Lack of institutions and endemic tribal, ethnic, religious and political divisions continue to doom many African states to third world status. I don’t know how to get there from here. Maybe if Mugabe had been an enlightened despot but those are always in very short supply.

  • TastyBits

    At OTB, Dr. Taylor had a post on the difference between revolution of government and overthrow of government. At the end of a revolution, the form of government has changed, and the previous government officials are unemployed or dead. At the end of an overthrow, the form and officials of the previous government are mostly intact.

    There was a French Revolution, but the American Revolution was an American Overthrow. That is why there was no Reign of Terror. He had examples of other countries which have had improperly labeled Revolutions.

    (He might have used Independence instead of overthrow, and his post was much more informative.)

  • PD Shaw

    @Tastybits, that seems like a distinction that may be useful to understand Latin American history.

    I think the American Revolution was violent, and people on the wrong side lost their property and were compelled to flee to Canada.

  • TastyBits

    @PD Shaw

    More than likely, I have mangled Dr. Taylor’s post, but I do not have the link to it. If I recall correctly, it is a general Political Science distinction, or it was from Dr. Taylor and a book co-author.

    It was specifically about the resulting form of government, but his post (and book) explained it much better and in more detail.

  • CuriousOnlooker

    Zimbabwe has similarities to what happened in China to the gang of 4 in 1976. The wife of the dictator misjudged her power and alienated too many of the old guard revolutionaries. Only in this case Mugabe was still alive vs Mao was dead.

    The Chinese experience is a good guide for what will happen next; Deng improved the economy and reversed some of Mao’s worst policies, but he was no liberal democrat.

    Still given where Zimbabwe is; any improvement in living conditions counts as progress.

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