Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A blinding example of civic culture

Daniel Knowles, The Economist's Africa correspondent offers this reflection on the importance of trust in civic culture.

A blinding lack of trust
Driving at night is difficult everywhere in the world… In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, however, being on the roads as night feels more than just testing; it feels positively dangerous…

[H]alf of the time you cannot see the road ahead of you, because of the blinding dazzle of oncoming cars, all driving with their headlights, foglights and any other lights they might have proudly on full beam. How does any reasonable driver react to this situation? Well if the reasonable driver is anything like me, he puts his headlights on full too…
Given that everyone else is behaving badly, you’re an idiot not to. Yet if everybody could resist the urge to behave selfishly, everybody would be better off. Hence the full-beam headlights. If most Kenyan drivers dipped their lights, everybody would be able to see. But nobody does it because nobody else does…

Nobody likes paying taxes, but it feels lot more of an imposition when you know that people far richer than you aren’t bothering. So too if you’re a politician and everybody else is stealing from the national treasury: you’re an idiot if you don’t get your share. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they even have a name for this behaviour… Article 15, a mythical part of the constitution which reads simply, “fend for yourself”.

In Britain, you trust that most people will follow the informal social laws that make society work – such as forming an orderly queue at the post office. And when everyone else is following the rules, you feel ashamed not to – not least because of social pressure…

In many African countries, it is the opposite. Pollsters show that people in Kenya have some of the lowest levels of trust in the world. According to one poll by Pew, just 25% of people agreed with the statement “most people in society are trustworthy”; in Sweden, the figure was 78%. And so the rules that make society work break down. Politicians who steal are not chastised but reelected... Shame comes from failing to get the most out of the system, instead of from being a functional part of it. And everyone is worse off – not least drivers, blinded by cars coming in the opposite direction.

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