Extractive elites and Christmas
“It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave (Matthew 20:26-27).
These words of the gospel keep ringing in my head and heart as I read the latest book by American economists Daron Acemoglu (a Turkish national residing in the United States) and James A. Robinson, authors of an essay titled Why Countries Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Acemoglu (MIT professor) and Robinson (Harvard professor) try to answer a question that concerns me after having traveled all around the world: Why are some countries more prosperous than others?
Their answer, if true, is cause for outrage: It is not geography, or demography, or climate, or collective psychology, or historical antecedents that determine the well-being of a society. It is all about the institutions (public and private) and the governance exercised by their elites. Societies with problems are in such a state because the so-called extractive elites “hijack” their institutions.
The extractive elites are the leaders of institutions that use these entities to benefit themselves (or their cronies) without regard for the common good. These people in turn create “extractive institutions” whose power is held by people without scruples or empathy.
These elites, whose actions are self-seeking, not only fail to generate wealth; they actually end up developing parasitic relations with the rest of society. The extractive elites are not exclusive to the public sector (e.g., political parties, trade unions, judiciary, police) or the private sector (e.g., finance, corporate, media, leisure). You might find all over —and a product of the struggle between good and evil that we wage within ourselves. A struggle in which so many short-term incentives contribute to us choosing the wrong side.
According to the essay’s authors, prosperity and poverty are the product of good or bad exercise of power. One of the favorite pastimes of the extractive elites is monetizing their power through corruption. In this context, corruption requires four actors. First, the politicians, executives or officials who traffic their influence in companies or public administrations (the second actors), who pay inflated prices or give favorable conditions to contractors (the third actors), who pay commissions to these politicians, officials and executives, who with the help of lawyers and bankers (the fourth actors) hide and launder the criminal money. There are too many actors in this tragedy of society…
“It shall not be so among you…” Combining intelligence and goodness in leadership; in public and private governance, this is a revolution lying in wait that we must drive with more determination as Christians together with people of good faith who belong to other religions or spiritualities.
There is an alternative to be a parasitic elite. It is called leading for the common good; becoming a symbiotic elite. Its power comes from the ability to build collaborative relationships based on trust, reciprocity and mutual respect. They are leaders who feel uncomfortable with the privileges and abuses of many of their peers; but who are comfortable with transparency, solid work and dedication, with the primacy of form following function, with the dynamics that produce a positive feedback loop, and quietly building a better long-term future.
The great battles of life are still waged within us. That is why, this Christmas, we must espouse the belief that the enemy of the big, wise heart required to lead for the common good is consumerism, living off appearances, posturing and celebrity, which we traffic so often in the exercise of power.
We must use our power, great or small, for the common good, where personal good is not at the expense of the other but goes hand in hand with the other. I wish you all the best in 2019.
Professor Luis Huete