Sunday, December 7, 2008

Accountability, cont.

Holding powerful people accountable for the consequences of their actions can be tough. It’s usually easy for the people at the top to find a scapegoat lower down when something goes wrong. But if the disasters they engineer are spectacular enough, the outcry is usually sufficient to make even powerful people hurt a little and sometimes give up some of their power.

Unless, that is, they hold a government position. In the private sector, people lose their jobs or even go to jail if they precipitate disasters on the job. In government, nothing happens to them unless they lose a war or get their generals so agitated that a coup ensues. In the meantime they’re generally pretty good at image management. There isn’t a tyrant in the world that doesn’t have a sizable fan club.

Multi-national corporations like Union Carbide at Bhopal can do a lot of damage, but but they are minor-leaguers compared with their public-sector rivals.

My local health-food restaurant has a picture of MaoTse-tung up on the wall, looking wise and benign. It’s a nice picture, and it gives the place a touch of color, indicating that the people that run the place have commendably progressive views and think that Mao was generally a fairly good fellow.

They need to read The Black Book of Communism, which details how somewhere between 20 and 43 million people starved to death as a direct result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward in 1959-61. This forced collectivization and clumsy industrialization of the Chinese peasantry laid waste to Chinese agriculture and led directly to what the authors of the book call “what was, and, one hopes, will forever remain, the most murderous famine of all time, anywhere in the world.” Among other attractive features of the scheme was forced labor, which led to minor glitches like the deaths of 10,000 out of 60,000 workers on one huge construction project in Henan.

The authors admit that “Undoubtedly it was not Mao’s intention to kill so many of his compatriots.” He was guilty merely of “economic incompetence, wholesale ignorance, and ivory-tower utopianism.” Those are crimes only if you work in the private sector, apparently. Mao’s reward for his body of work was canonization, both in China and in credulous circles outside it.

Of course, it’s easy to pick on outright totalitarians like the egregious Kim family regime in North Korea or the nightmarish Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Even the left is a little embarrassed by them. But you’ll still see defenses of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, who wrecked that country’s agriculture with another forced collectivization scheme. His Wikipedia entry notes laconically that "the country fell on hard economic times", choosing not to detail how Nyerere forced the country’s rural population into camps, expropriated the mercantile class and handed industry over to an incompetent bureaucracy.

I’ve been picking on the left so far, maybe because it irks me that left-wing figures always get a pass for good intentions that is not granted to right-wing villains. If you proclaim socialism or some other kind of utopianism as your goal, you can get away with an extraordinary amount of destructive mischief and outright crimes, and people will still sell T-shirts with your picture on them in health food stores.

But you don’t have to be a totalitarian megalomaniac to wreak havoc on an economy or society. Respected U.S. senators Reed Smoot and Willis C. Hawley did their bit to destroy prosperity in 1930 when the infamous tariff act that bears their name instantly kneecapped foreign trade with the U.S., tipping the rest of the world into depression. They were directly responsible for millions of job losses and the descent of large masses of people into penury, but nobody ever suggested they be put on trial for it. And the well-meaning Wayne Wheeler and Andrew Volstead, who midwifed Prohibition in the U.S. in 1919, were never called on the carpet for the explosion of violence and long-term entrenchment of organized crime that resulted from that little brainstorm. They have ideological soulmates in our present-day government, whose ferocious prosecution of the Drug War fuels gang shoot-outs on U.S. streets, large-scale havoc in Mexico and civil war in Colombia.

The people behind these follies may have only the purest of intentions. But bad government policy can do a lot of damage, and people in government are insulated from accountability in a way that you and I aren’t. Democracy is supposed to provide a check on the worst government abuses, but it’s a blunt instrument and an inefficient regulator. Still, it’s still the best thing we have, and it has to be safeguarded wherever it’s in danger. Hugo Chávez has been busily bankrupting Venezuela for a decade now, squandering its oil wealth on untenable populist social schemes. He’s not the first politician to do that. But what makes him a villain is his scheming to stay in power and eliminate all political opposition so he can’t be held accountable for the damage. The Venezuelans mustn’t let him get away with that.

A certain U.S. president may pop into your mind here. I don’t especially want to get involved in partisan arguments, and there’s no need for me to pile on; there are plenty of people on the Dubya beat already. And my view of the past eight years is probably a little more nuanced than that of the people who foam at the mouth and turn red when George Bush appears on TV. But it’s hard to argue that the second Bush administration has been a howling success. Fortunately, we have a Constitution that says you can’t have more than eight years in the Oval Office. That’s our insurance policy.

Our clumsy and imperfect democracy is the only way, ultimately, we can hold these people accountable. We hand extraordinary power to our politicians, much more than the most devious CEO of a multi-national can ever hope for, and a lot of them misuse it. That’s why the brake pedal of democracy is so important. You can always throw the bums out.

If only everyone else in the world were as fortunate.

Sam Reaves