The Nirvana Fallacy of Meles Zenawi’s Separation of Democracy From Economic Development By Tecola W. Hagos,
“Man does not live by bread alone…” Matthew 4:4; [Deuteronomy 8:3]
All over the world, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is promoting his dubious assertion that economic development is something that is separate from democracy and by extension from all forms of social interactions (political, ethical, and moral constraints). As a matter of fact, that is not a novel idea for Meles, for the idea was also reflected in the first question he asked over fifteen years ago at his first meeting with Prof Samuel Huntington in Addis Ababa, whether democracy was possible in “a peasant” based economic system. It is also a clear contradiction of the claim that the TPLF started out as a liberation struggle from an oppressive political system. In short, there are numerous negative ramifications that could be deduced from such dubious opinion of a leader.
This form of statement delaminating democracy from economic development and the mind that conjures it up may be quite shallow. Meles Zenawi’s opinion on the separateness of democracy from economic development seems to be a naïve or elementary understanding of the interface between all forms of social activities and economics. To be generous, such view reminds me of Economics 101 text book by Samuelson where the preoccupation is to teach basic definitions and concepts in the field of economics, and of necessity such introductory text book is simplified and is devoid of social context in order to avoid complexity and provide simplistic explanations appropriate at such initiation stage. For example, in teaching children the alphabet, one does not go into the historical roots and evolution of the language and that of the individual alphabets. It seems to me to base ones opinion, at an international forum, on such elementary understanding of economics in our social reality is quite inappropriate and embarrassing too.
It is not helpful to the struggle of the people of Ethiopia if our leaders keep on insisting on seeing political freedom and economic development separated. It is extremely worrisome to me because by implication Meles Zenawi’s argument seems supported by the rich and the powerful nations around the world, for they kept inviting this brutal dictator to their renowned conferences, the latest being the G8 (G20) at Camp David and Washington DC. It is this form of acceptance at international forums that is confusing the Ethiopian people in the Diaspora and back in our own homes, on how to deal with Meles Zenawi. The acceptance by such powerful Governments seems to endorse Meles Zenawi’s activities and seems to give legitimacy to his form of despotism and corruption. There was no need to invite Meles Zenawi to such Forums, while he is brutalizing a people through his draconian laws camouflaged as laws against terrorism. I know that Western Governments are no angels, but should they be also so stupid to be manipulated by the likes of Meles Zenawi? For a struggling people of Ethiopia, it is a difficult process to go against such powerful political current flowing from powerful Governments.
II. Category Mistake
It is obvious from his numerous speeches that Meles Zenawi is a highly skilled manipulator of words and ideas in manners that would seem to follow logical reasoning; but it is an inductive amalgamation of some limited factual matters with self-serving goals to build an exaggerated edifice. However hard one may try to read some rationality in Meles Zenawi’s views, even bend backward to accommodate such wayward polemic, it is simply impossible to see any rational in such opinion, and with some degree of scrutiny, one can see how porous and riddled Meles Zenawi’s opinion on economic/development is with fallacies and invalid conclusions. Thus, Meles Zenawi by basing his argument in disassociating or delaminating democracy from development or development from democracy, based on the alleged absence of historical evidence connecting the two, is simply confusing and a denial of reality. He even went further claiming that there is no theoretical connection between democracy and development.
I am at a loss to account for such bizarre assertions by Meles Zenawi. I cannot fathom the possibility that he grew up into his adulthood without ever reading E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered, and ever tempering his wild and violent nature and saving himself from making such asinine remarks in public forums. I am more embarrassed than angry for such public display of idiotic ideas; after all, when the dust settles, Meles Zenawi not only is representing our Motherland, but also all peoples of color around the world. This form of delamination of economic development from democracy has several fallacious starting points and arguments. It has elements of Cartesian dualism, which had been a source of contentious debates among theologians, philosophers, political scientists et cetera for quite some time. Most importantly, it is a classic example of a category mistake of focusing on the identity of “the whole” entity as if it is a constituent part.
Of course, Meles’s argument in support of such assertion is fallacious on an empirical assessment and examination of those successful nations also. What is even worse is that Meles presented his statements as categorical imperatives, with no room for discourse or reexaminations. The idea is also a recycled old and thoroughly exhausted Marxism-Leninism with a pinch of Stalinism. Maoism is a totally different economic and sociopolitical setup that should be discussed separately, especially away from Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism. What I see in the effort to delaminate democracy from economic development by Meles Zenawi and his supporters and admirers, including his detractors, is a mix up of concepts and problems of predicating what needs to be proven or verified for logical validity. My favorite story in the framing of the controversy is the story that Philosopher Gilbert Ryle used to tell his students at Oxford University, about his friend (some claim the visitor to be a “Tourist”) who visited him and wanted to see Oxford University. The story goes that dutifully Prof Ryle took his friend around pointing out “this is All Souls”, “this is Christ Church”, “this is Magdalen”, et cetera. At the end of the tour Ryle’s friend said, “Thank you for showing me all these beautiful Colleges, but you did not show me Oxford University.” The point is that parts constitute the “whole,” and that the “whole” is not a part or cannot be its own member [a set of one or the null set technically do not have constituents], which in this case is identified by Ryle as a ”category mistake,” and using Ryle’s favorite phrasing on a similar issue, there is no “ghost in the machine” called Oxford, for example. In the same way this artificial delamination between democracy and economic growth/development is a search for a “ghost” called “economic development.” Economic growth is a part of a democratic process; it cannot be separated from the democratic process.
The argument in favor of such separation is usually based on selective examples of some Twentieth Century national economies around the world that had shown tremendous economic growth without having the ideal “democratic” form of governments. At any rate, those Asian Tigers had leaders and entrepreneurs who loved their respective countries and were not engaged in massive siphoning off the wealth of their respective countries. By contrast, Meles Zenawi and his associates are engaged in massive shameful looting of Ethiopia, where it was reported by an independent body that in the last few years alone there was capital flight and money transfer from Ethiopia worth between three to five billion dollars, without adding the gold that is looted for almost twenty years that turned a simple peddler of music cassettes into a multi billionaire. The fact is that there is some democratic element even in the den of thieves. If we use that type of approach or argument used by Meles to justify his assertion of separating economic growth from democracy, slavery can also be justified to produce the type of “economic” growth claimed by Meles. This form of argument easily deteriorate into the “chicken or the egg” type of dilemma, and ought to be rejected right away. It is an argument that has been repeatedly proven wrong with clear examples of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the East Block countries. Cuba the last holdout is tittering on its last leg. North Korea and China would go the same route as the Soviet Union in few years. Already China is not the China of Mao’s time and vision; it is recovering its “Imperial” self and reestablishing its ancient social structure under new banners and new names.
III. The Nirvana Fallacy
Meles Zenawi’s claim of the separateness of democracy from economic development defies much of the long standing theories about the connection between democracy and economic development, and also goes against empirical evidence accumulated over the last hundred fifty years affirming the correlation between democracy and economic development. Starting from Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) down to Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs [twin fans of Meles Zenawi at Columbia University] the overwhelming majority of economists that I read have used the democratic form of government matrix as the basis of their illumination of economic growth or advancement, which in our modern parlance means economic development or modernization processes. Although I did not find a single Nobel Laureate in economics whose thesis is based on the delamination of democracy and economic development, on the other hand I have found several Nobel Prize Laureates in economics whose views are premised on the connection between economic development and democracy. Since 1969, there has been about seventy Nobel Laureates. Starting in 1971 with Prof Simon Kuznets of Harvard University, the Nobel Prize was awarded for over fifty world-class economists for works that involve “process of economic development” and sociopolitical structure.
The following distinguished scholars and professors all wrote basing their analysis on the intimate and direct relationship between social and political structures and the economy of states:
1 – Prof Frederick Hayek – 1974 Nobel Laureate – capitalism and democracy
2- Prof Milton Friedman – 1976 Nobel Laureate – on monetary policy – on capitalism and democracy
3 – Prof Theodore Schultz – 1979 Nobel Laureate – on development economics
4 – Prof Gary Becker – 1992 Nobel Laureate – on economics and human behavior
5 – Prof Rober Fogol – 1993 Nobel Laureate – on economic history and institutional changes
6 – Prof Amartya Sen – 1998 Nobel Laureate- on welfare economics – development and freedom
7 – Prof Joseph Stiglitz – 2001 Nobel Laureate – on asymmetric information – development and free-market
8 – Prof Thomas J Sargent – 2011 Nobel Laureate – on cause and effect of national and global (macro) economy
I have studied the works of the economists listed above and others, in some cases far more extensively, starting from my years in law school, such as the works of Schumacher, Kuznets, Hayek, Friedman, Galbraith, and in the last fifteen years those of Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen whom I greatly admire and had the privilege of meeting in person. The claim that democracy is not necessary for economic development misses the whole point in the understanding of economic growth in any society, in the first place. Is it possible to have a human goal or purpose without human beings? This may sound a foolish question, but the idea of economic development delaminated from democracy or human freedom/rights is equally absurd. It is a comedy and a tragedy to read Meles Zenawi’s ersatz opinion in light of the learned writings of world-class economists whose life-time works affirm the fact that political processes and the economy of a country cannot be so easily and callously delaminated or be seen as having very little to do with each other.
My concern in this short paper is whether Meles Zenawi’s delaminating of democracy from economic development is a serious threat to the State of Ethiopia and/or the development aspirations of people around the globe. What is the attraction of having plenty of food to eat and high employment, if one is living in a slave-plantation or a nation of dictatorial rule where individuals live in great fear and insecurity, with minimal freedoms. Human beings are not like donkeys, horses, or baboons with life not much beyond eating and mating. The human yearning for freedom, self expression, autonomy et cetera is as real as the craving for food, shelter, and security. In fact, it is quite disconcerting to raise such issue in the twenty first century where the Internet and other technological advances have continued to add and expand the value of human life. My interest here is not to create a hierarchy of human needs and aspirations, but to recognize the real needs of human beings whether it is spiritual, abstract, or material. I do not find any wisdom in arranging human needs in schemes that creates some arbitrary and artificial hierarchy.
Of course, what Meles is saying is a lot more subtle than being simple crude polemic. What is confusing to people who read him is the fact that the “ideals” of democracy not being realizable in full at any given moment in human social and political life, may end up making it look reasonable to argue the position that since such democratic ideal is not possible, the delamination of economic development from such matrix does not seem that extreme. This form of argument is what logicians call the nirvana fallacy. Actually the term was coined by an economist, Harold Demsetz, in 1969. Another related fallacy is “the fallacy of perfection.” In either case the fallacy lies in the idea that unless every aspect of an ideal is achieved then the real life situation or effort toward that ideal is futile. Unless every aspect of the “ideal democracy” is in place in a community, anything less is a justification to throw out what is even achieved as a shortcoming. As I stated earlier, “democracy” is not a “ghost” in a political machine. It has constituent parts that add up to what is identified to be a democratic system of government. Such constituent parts of democracy, although in a process, includes such structures of rule of law, impartial judges, legislative bodies at different levels, elected and/or appointed executives, freedom of speech and expression, free market and healthy competition et cetera. When one speaks of “democracy” as if it is a distinct element from the many constituent parts of a system, one is committing a “category mistake” or talking of a “ghost” in the political entity.
IV. The Reality on the Ground
I wish this article as a form of criticism on Meles Zenawi’s views on the relationship of democracy and economic development was written by individuals whose primary discipline is economics; however, in the absence of that I am filling in with a kind of leaning or inclination toward logic and simple common sense and the philosophy of rights. I hope I did not mess-up or sacrifice economics completely for philosophy and logic. In case of this particular view of Meles Zenawi, I believe that his delamination of democracy from economic development is an unabashed and arrogant justification for his dictatorial rule that he claims to be that of developmental state. This separation of economic development from democracy and human rights is a straw-man argument to hide his mediocre ability in governance that has resulted in the total disfranchisement of the Ethiopian people from our political and human rights and our right to economic growth and development. The literature on the subject of the connection between democracy and economic development is enormous. As indicated above, there are several renowned economists who have won Nobel prizes and other recognitions for their contribution on the subject of democracy and economic development.
The singular shortcoming of Meles Zenawi and his associates is their “winner-takes-it-all” or “leave-no-prisoners” type of operation in an area of human endeavor that necessarily requires great compromises, negotiations, and tolerance and accommodations of diverse people and multiple of interests. To borrow a phrase from my good friend Dr. Moges Gebremariam, no “political scrap” is left by Meles Zenawi and his associates whenever they go after a political goal contending with others for leadership. There is no “political scrap” for others to use to reconstitute and recover in order to keep the political life of Ethiopia survive in some form.
Facts on the ground bear my assertion that everything that sprouts from Meles Zenawi’s brain is aimed to do one and only one thing: to earn or receive for any number of reasons as much hard currency (Dollar, Euro, Swiss Frank et cetera) that will be directed through all kinds of devices and conduits to the control of Meles Zenawi and his associates. This obsessive pursuit of hard currency was started even before the TPLF/EPRDF overrun the brutal military regime of Mengistu Hailemariam during the time of the great famines of the 1980s where millions of hard currency of aid money disappeared in the byzantine world of TPLF’s money stashing system. To this day there had never been a full accounting or auditing of such stash of money. Once the TPLF leaders were established as the Government of Ethiopia, the economy of Ethiopia has been totally dominated by corporations and partnerships controlled by Meles Zenawi and his associates since 1991 for over twenty years. This led to the accumulation of a mountain of Ethiopian currency, paper money called birr, which is worth nothing in the international currency market for it is not readily exchanged or can be converted into hard currency.
The whole “economic renaissance” program initiated by Meles Zenawi, including the several mega hydroelectric generating dams, is a ruse and subterfuge, an elaborate scheme for the conversion of ill begotten Ethiopian currency into hard currency. Meles Zenawi does not give a hoot for Ethiopians or Ethiopia, he never had; he does not care a scintilla whether Ethiopians prosper, whether our national territorial integrity is respected, or whether our sovereign rights are enforced. As a matter of observed fact, he physically struggles to say “Ethiopia” in his oral presentations for the Word “Ethiopia” seems to choke him. This does not surprise me at all when I consider his family background and how he grew up in a community that shunned and insulted him and his family, just like Mengistu Hailemariam who vented his deeply seated anger against “Ethiopians” by committing massive horrendous murders.
We, Ethiopians, must be careful in choosing our national leaders, in following political opposition leaders et cetera, the spur of the moment type emotional outbursts and hatred driven choices will not do. The background of a person, how well adjusted that person is in his or her Ethiopianness, whether he has faith et cetera matters most. My sincere advise to all my fellow Ethiopians is that we never ever follow anyone petty, small-minded, and/or with no religious conviction. Let us not support anyone just because he or she comes out from a disfranchised or poor family or minority ethnic group. I suggest that we look for individual qualities of generosity, compassion, courage, love and pride in ancient and current Ethiopia, and a person of magnanimity and vision for a great people and a nation.
God Bless Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Amen.
Tecola W. Hagos
May 27, 2012