Dambisa Moyo’s Edge of Chaos has generated quite a bit of controversy since its publication last year. In the book, Moyo discusses her views on how, over the past several decades, certain developments in America’s political system, such as the increasing influence of money in politics, declining voter participation in elections, and waning institutions have negatively impacted the country’s economic growth. This loss of economic dynamism, she argues, is a leading cause of the rising nationalism and social instability in America.
Moyo makes a number of recommendations in her book on how to fix these systemic ills. She summarized the main ones in a June 2018 Washington Post article. Among them are: making voting mandatory; requiring voters to pass a test to demonstrate knowledge of issues; weighting some constituents’ votes heavier than those of others; and extending the length of terms served by some elected officials to give them adequate time to set and implement their policies.
Perhaps the most contentious of Moyo’s proposals is weighted voting. It has little chance of being adopted in America because the principle of “One person, one vote” has become firmly enshrined in the Constitution following lengthy and fierce court battles. Even then, it is the one I found most interesting because that idea has increasingly entered mainstream conversations in Africa in recent years.
In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote that “government, even in its best form, is a necessary evil, a mode rendered necessary by the inability of moral virtue to govern the world.” Paine said that “in order to prevent the elected from forming to themselves an interest separate from that of the electors, it is prudent to conduct elections often and thereby force the elected to return frequently to mix with the general body of the electors to ensure the fidelity of the elected to the public.”
Paine clearly assumed that the electors would be capable of exercising the oversight he deemed so necessary. History has shown that this is not always the case, even in the most advanced democracies. Much has been written about political power in America becoming concentrated in the hands of an entrenched elite that is unresponsive to the needs of the average voter. Similar complaints abound in Western European and developed Asian countries that have established democratic governments. A longstanding feeling of powerlessness amongst voters in most of those countries is a primary cause of the apathy Moyo discussed in her book.
The picture is much worse in Africa and the rest of the developing world. There, high levels of illiteracy render large numbers of citizens incapable of participating effectively in the democratic process. People seeking elected office routinely take advantage of such constituents by simply giving them gifts in return for votes during elections.
In his research for his doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Los Angeles, Eric Kramon studied the causes and effects of cash distributions to voters during elections in Kenya and several African countries. His analysis showed that in Kenya’s 2007 elections, cash handouts influenced the voting choices of about 20 percent of citizens. He also established that even when they themselves had not received any, merely hearing that an electoral candidate had distributed cash was enough to cause some Kenyan voters to prefer that candidate to an otherwise identical candidate who had not done so. According to Kramon, that tendency was strongest among poorer voters.
Obviously, having such a large part of an electorate base its choice not on objective consideration of issues, but on cash receipts, presents a huge challenge in a democracy. Invariably, it leads to exceptionally poor quality of leadership since incompetent people are the ones most likely to bribe their way into office because they lack the confidence to win on merit. It is the case that in Africa, poverty is generally associated with illiteracy, and that is why some Africans have argued that the electoral votes of people in that population segment should be discounted.
While it is quite tempting to sympathize with that reasoning, it is a particularly dangerous idea for Africa. In his book Political Parties, German sociologist Robert Michels echoed Paine’s worry about concentration of power in the hands of an elite class in a democracy. But Michels argued that such an outcome is inevitable due to how democracies are structured. In his view, people in power, with their ability to limit access to information, are easily able to concentrate their power because of apathy on the part of most ordinary people, and the distance of the masses from the points at which decisions are made. He characterized this inevitability as “the iron law of oligarchy.”
Those who follow African politics closely will most likely agree with Michels’ point. In almost every country on the continent, a tiny elite has maintained a firm grip on power, demonstrating no interest in surrendering any of the privileges they enjoy. The last thing the continent needs, in my view, is further erosion—via vote discounting—of the little influence the powerless masses currently have, and thus concentrating even more power in the hands of the corrupt elite.
In conversations with my African friends in America and elsewhere in the developed world, I often sense a high level of frustration with what they see as inability of their less-educated folks on the continent to make “wise” choices in elections. I always wonder whether they realize how unrealistic their expectations are. Seemingly, they completely ignore the fact that it is their exposure to life in advanced societies that has given them the perspectives that enable them to analyze socio-political issues and make informed choices in ways that people living in Africa cannot.
In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote that “It’s a critical fact that the cognitive division of labor in advanced societies provides each of us with epistemological resources far greater than any that would fit between our ears. We can talk casually about entangled electrons, the Bantu migration, gram-negative diplococci, and Petrarchan sonnets because there are communities of researchers who know about these things.” He argued that his Asante ancestors, who might have consulted a fetish priest to learn about an illness, were no less rational than those of us today who might send a blood sample off to a lab. What differentiate us, he implies, are the environments in which we live.
The ruling class in Africa is unlikely to upset the status quo by instituting the systemic changes that are required to equip the masses to become effective participants in democratic governance. That would be detrimental to their interests. Those of us who are interested in seeing African countries become fully functioning democracies should thus assume those responsibilities by patiently imparting some of our acquired knowledge to our relatives and others within our narrow social circles on the continent.
It is a daunting task, but we have to start somewhere and be prepared to sustain the effort. Partial disenfranchisement of the illiterate poor, as being championed by some of us, is a slippery slope.