Max planck 1858 1947 german physicist everett

The physicist Max Planck once wrote that “science advances one funeral at a time.” His point, he went on to explain in Scientific Autobiography, is that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Sadly, I agree with Mr. Planck. Worse, I think his logic applies to many realms beyond science. In governance, for example, I’m not aware of any corrupt politician who has been persuaded by logic and reason to stop being corrupt. Rather, he is eventually voted out of office, or he dies, and is replaced by the next generation of elites. Fortunately, each progressive generation of elites tends to be less corrupt and more democratic than the previous.

The above pattern underlies a fascinating debate between economists Mushtaq Khan and Daniel Kaufmann that is skillfully moderated by Owen Barder on the Development Drums podcast. (Hat tip to my colleague Martin Tisne.)

Barder begins the discussion with this question: Does corruption impede economic development, as Kaufmann has argued, or does a lack of economic development lead to greater levels of corruption, as Khan argues? Each man has a compelling thesis.

According to Khan, good governance doesn’t come about simply because there are international calls for greater transparency and civil society monitoring. Rather, governance improves when a new generation of politicians takes power and implements important structural changes that empower the middle class, such as property rights, greater regulation of monopolies, the formalization of the labor market, fair procurement, and entrepreneurial competitiveness. Once those structural issues are resolved, argues Khan, using Taiwan and South Korea as examples, corruption naturally diminishes and governance improves. In other words, to quote Wikipedia, “good governance is the outcome, rather than the cause, of economic growth.”

The listener perceives that Khan convinces Kaufmann of his arguments much more than vise-versa. Still, Kaufmann protests: If economic growth is the cause rather than consequence of good governance, why then is Botswana such a success story while the United States suffers increasing corruption and clientelism in the financial sector? Kaufmann agrees with Khan that strong, enlightened leadership by new generations of elites is key to a country’s development, but he is wary of the “Singapore model of development,” which focuses on structural changes to improve the market economy and strengthen the middle class without any focus on political accountability or civic participation.

Monitoring and Strengthening New Governments

If, to misquote Max Planck, “governance advances one funeral at a time,” then we’re at an interesting point of transition here in Mexico. After 12 years of conservative PAN party rule, the PRI is back at the helm. Mexico City and its 16 boroughs also have new administrations that are just starting to find their feet after taking power at the end of last year. At both the federal and local levels of government I have friends and acquaintances who are entering public administration for the first time. They are the new generation of progressive, forward-looking elites that must now adapt to a structure and culture of government that is still closed and influenced by powerful lobbying interests. It has been fascinating for me to sit back and observe their transition.

One of the subtle tensions in the open government community is whether the movement seeks to limit or strengthen the capabilities of government. Peter Spink has clearly articulated the historical context that explains why Latin American civil society has developed as a counter-weight to restrain the powers of state, which has been responsible for perpetuating human rights abuses, patronage, and economic inequality. Unlike their counterparts in the US and Western Europe, many Latin American NGOs view their governments as enemies to be restrained. As a result, they have been less effective at supporting the new generation of progressive elites that enter government with plenty of idealism but little political capital to implement the kind of structural changes that Khan insists are necessary to improve governance.

I find myself more persuaded by Khan’s arguments than Kaufmann’s. I have spent my entire adult life trying to convince an older generation in power within academia, civil society, philanthropy and government to become more open, transparent and accountable. I have had no luck. Unfortunately for the impatient, progress awaits its funerals.

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