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Governance in our democracy: what good is it and will we fight for it?

Recently, I’ve been feeling like we exist in the talented Belizean artist Michael Gordon’s reimagined expression of a Salvador Dali painting superimposed with the Edvard Munch work, The Scream. Reality has me clutching my head in the recurring nightmare of being naked on a crowded street. This time, however, it is institutions of national government being stripped, norms discarded and our country (state) laid bare. Having peacefully navigated the ICJ referendum, the future is ours to win. But what is the condition of our governing institutions? Are they weak and shallow? If so, what would strong governing institutions look like?

The Origins of the Modern Country

Arguably, the advent of the modern country can be pegged to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended decades of war in Europe. According to Best 2002, the works of many, including Hobbes (1588-1679), Locke (1632-1704) and Weber (1918), classify the development of the contemporary country as follows: (1) a political apparatus: a leader or government supported by institutions and other forms of organisation with a monopoly on violence; (2) demarcated territorial area: a place or geographical area, usually a country; (3) sovereignty: exercise of authority over a geographical area, including control over the people who live there; and (4) national identity: characteristics displayed by people which identify them with a geographical area.

The United States juxtaposed with Belize is a good case study in modern institutional building, starting with the experiment in Constitution rule. Belize’s proximity, familiarity and a sort of “love-hate” relationship between the two based on truth and myth — these make the pairing interesting.

U.S. & Belize

The U.S. experienced two intense periods of extensive public institutional (bureaucratic) development in the 1930s and 1960s. While the process has been dynamic and there have been many who advocated greater constraints on expansion, no one argues against that country being apolitical and hierarchically-organized with entry and promotion being based on merit. Building on this framework for 243 years, the U.S. is now a world economic and military superpower. Institutions promote constitutional rule and, while never perfect, the trajectory of development produces laws, rules, and norms that support a modern liberal democracy.

At Independence in 1981, Belize, like other former colonies, inherited the Westminster style- government. It is based on the U.K.’s parliamentary democracy that evolved from inauspicious beginnings in 1295. Like other former colonies, Belize struggles with institutional development and good governance. It is not that the institutions are not present. We know some taxes are collected and where the various public offices are located across the country and are constantly reminded of our government’s presence at police checkpoints. We also know that they function in ways that frustrate, alienate and discourage us. We do not feel as if the institutions we pay for work for us but for a few at the expense of others.

Still, Belize has grown economically, albeit unevenly. We have development socially and culturally in some spheres, conjoined with degradation of law and order, mainly driven by economic disparities. The political, judicial and bureaucratic institutions have been slow to adapt to meet the challenges during the 38 years since independence.

Deep, Dark, Strong, Shallow, Weak!

Belize can learn (not copy) from our northern leviathan. The machination over the role of the government is playing out in real time and is televised. While reading this, think about what YOU know about Belize. The term “deep state” was originally associated with shadow governments that worked to undermine the official government. What has recently taken on a life of its own is the notion that the depth and strength of government institutions now constitute a “dark state” which is used interchangeably with “deep state” (Abramson, March 8, 2017).

The existence of strong institutions is, therefore, converted into a “dark state,” which equates the federal bureaucracy with a sinister plot to undermine the will of specific political leaders. This suggests that individuals of the government conspire to thwart the will of the elected officials wishing to use the government’s institutions to further hype-partisan agendas. Acts of resistance by career civil servants with institutional knowledge and accustomed to participating in the making of public policies are attacked and/or ignored. The results are attacks on public institutions, the separation of power and norms of governance. These weaken governing institutions that promote bargaining and compromising to produce public policies aimed at the public good and not purely the political (or private) fortunes of elected officials.

What is interesting about these U.S. developments in the comparative world is revealed when we examine the literature on “weak states”. Migdal (1988) uses the term “weak state” to describe counties with a limited capacity to tax and regulate, and, arguably, play a positive role in the development of the state. The “deep state” (as used currently) or “strong state” is touted as the key for developing counties to fight corruption and inefficiencies, maintain law and order and promote economic development. In developing countries, weak state institutions are linked to corruption in aid projects, slow development (Kenny, June 19, 2017) and threats to U.S. security interests (U.S. Government 2002).

What we are witnessing in the U.S., therefore, is the denigration of the institutions and norms of government to make way for a hyper-political agenda of a small political and economic elite (sometimes one and the same). This weakening of the government is the same criticism levied at developing countries and is blamed for their failures to fight corruption and nepotism and to meet economic challenges by good governance and upholding the rule of law.

The importance of institutional strength to the stability of liberal democracies should not be underestimated. This is where Belize, while not an economic or military power house, should take note. In looking at political developments around the world, Lipner says, “Legitimate as their grievances may be, the world would be wise to heed a different warning: Beware the untethered ‘shallow state’… But when those voted into office neuter the professional civil service, they are undermining one of the most critical assets to their success.” (Lipner February 4, 2019).

The shallow state (government) allows those governing in self-interest to breed the corruption, abuses and sycophant allegiances that perpetrate poor economic performance that plagues developing countries. This is not a call for total state power and control, but a call for governments to play meaningful, effective and equitable roles in the country. Acemuglo (2005) concludes that there must be balance where the state is constrained by checks and balances but is strong enough to “balance the distribution of power between the state and society …and invest in public goods” (26). The threat to the future of the U.S. as an economic and military power depends on striving constantly for that balance or risk democratic backsliding by debilitating the institutions that sustain modern liberal democracies (Bermeo, 2016).

The trend in the U.S. is familiar to those in Belize who try to secure title to land, apply for a birth certificate, or acquire a government permit for anything. Some sail through the processes, while most others flounder and are frustrated. Law and order is high on our list of priorities. Yet law enforcement officers are present, but high levels of crime continue unabated. Authority is neither respected nor feared and increased brutality (including extrajudicial killings) will not solve the problem. Vote- “buying” is accepted as widespread and a viable tool for election victories. Ministerial discretion is wielded to benefit some, while leaving others withering in the scorching sun. The state is present but weak or shallowly resting on the shoulders of those not focused on the public good.

What do you want from me?

Dali, Munch and Gordon are best enjoyed in galleries and not translated into reality. For the U.S., it’s the perceived strengths and protections of these very institutions that draw people to search for more favorable political, social and economic lives.

As Belizeans we need to be leery of the shrill voices of those who attack and undermine institutions, thereby weakening the government by compromising its integrity and respect. They offer nothing themselves or maybe an “alternative” (dictatorship is bandied about) for mere personal and political gain. We need to stop the self-defeating handwringing and work on building public and private institutional strengths. That, in turn, can improve governance to stem the drain of human resources and the flow of our youth to the prison or early graves.

Do I think this is easy? No! If we say we love Belize (as we heard ad nauseam during the ICJ debate), do we have any choice but to try? NO! Lots of good things are happening and continuing change is inevitable. The challenge for us is how we manage the direction of the changes at this crucial point. We need not only a cadre of leaders with political will but a public steeled for the battle for the future. It starts with not littering through voting and holding elected officials accountable between elections. I pledge to do my part: will you do the same?

(About the Author: Belizean Harold Young is an Assistant Professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy (Political Science) from Georgia State University and a J.D. (LL.B/C.L.E.) from the University of the West Indies/Norman Manley School of Law. His primary research areas are Public Law and American and comparative perspectives on judicial institutional changes and decision-making. Dr. Young has published in the Journal of International and Global Studies, Journal of Race and Politics and International Social Studies Review. Contact: [email protected])

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