Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
Mauricio Macri thinks nepotism –the habit politicians
of all stripes, judges and others have of
handing out top jobs not just to alleged nephews
as unchaste Popes once did but also to other
family members such as spouses, sons,
daughters, cousins and in-laws – is typical of
underdeveloped countries and should therefore be done away
with. That is why – to the dismay of many men and women who
until last week held well-paid sinecures awarded them by strategically-placed
relatives – he has declared war on the practice.
Macri’s decision to give such people the boot has been widely
attributed to his desire to distract attention from the plight of Jorge
Triaca, the wheelchair-bound Labour minister who is currently
in the doghouse not just for something he said
several years ago but also for handing plumb
jobs to relatives and other members of his
entourage. That may be so, but it clearly fits in
nicely with his evident belief that, for Argentina
to join the ranks of the developed nations,
she would have to experience a thoroughgoing
cultural revolution, one that, among other
things, would entail the dismantlement of
dozens of the family networks that in his view
help hold her back.
Critics of nepotism point out that it is grossly unfair to gifted
individuals without useful contacts, who find themselves at a disadvantage
in the competition for the limited number of good jobs
that are available and are therefore unable to make proper use of
their talents. That is true enough, as is the evident fact that nepotistic
practices enable incompetents to rise to the top, but what
most riles Macri and members of his inner circle is the proliferation
in public institutions of Kirchnerite “mafias” that would like to cut
short their term in office by making Argentina ungovernable.
However, Macri seems to have much more in mind than a desire
to win brownie points with the general public by attacking
privilege and, while about it, to weaken his political foes. Like
many others, he understands that a country’s overall performance
has far less to do with the natural resources it may possess than
with what goes on in people’s minds. That is why Japan and
Switzerland, which have beautiful landscapes but not much else,
are rich while most African countries are desperately poor, as
indeed are Brazil and Argentina despite their many natural advantages.
In all underdeveloped countries, trust is in short supply.
One symptom of this is the importance that is given to family
ties. They matter most in societies whose inhabitants have good
reason to suspect they are surrounded by predators waiting for a
chance to deprive them of their belongings and even their lives.
This has always been the case in much of the world and, outside
a few enclaves in northern Europe and elsewhere, it still is.
For Macri’s efforts to “modernise” or, as he sometimes puts it,
“normalise” Argentine society to succeed, he would have to persuade
millions of people that the Judiciary, the police and the
social welfare departments that are run by provincial or municipal
governments have become far more trustworthy than the traditional
arrangements with which most people are familiar. Strenuous
efforts to do this have been under way since he took office,
especially in Buenos Aires province where Maria Eugenia Vidal
has been doing battle with judges plausibly accused of being far
too soft on evildoers who, once set free, do what they did before
getting sent inside, bent coppers who pile up fortunes running
brothels or selling drugs, political operators who are happy to
cooperate with underworld thugs and other representatives of
what she hopes will soon be seen as the old order.
Until fairly recently, development thinkers who stressed the
importance of cultural factors took it for granted that economically
backward countries should strive to become more like those in
Scandinavia in which, they said, just about everybody
respected the same rules and behaved accordingly.
As a result, unrelated people were willing
to trust one another and work together on behalf
of the common good instead of indulging in the
destructive free-for-all that is routine in less enlightened
places. However, sceptics have noted
that, until quite recently, the societies many progressives
took for their models had been blessed
with a degree of homogeneity that is increasingly
hard to find in today’s multicultural world and
which Sweden and her neighbours are fast leaving behind.
That means that, unless they are very lucky, countries that
have long been famed for their inhabitants’ willingness to let
the authorities have the last word because they assumed the
people in charge of them shared their values will soon become
more like those, among them Argentina, in which sensible folk
know policemen may moonlight as criminals and judges can be
bought and, even if they would prefer to apply the law without
fear or favour, will always be prone to overlook the misdeeds of
powerful politicians who helped put them where they are. In
societies in which distrust is widespread, people in need of some
protection, as on occasion everybody does, have little choice but
to rely on whatever contacts they have with individuals who are
in a position to lend them a hand in exchange for their personal
loyalty. Needless to say, family members top most lists.
Unfortunately, the clannish networks based on what one
might describe as extended families that continue to be strong
in Latin America, southern Europe, Africa and large chunks of
Asia, are making their presence felt in countries that were once
considered relatively free from them. The current vogue for
“identity politics” and the group loyalty that comes with it is
encouraging their growth.
While loyalty may be a much-prized traditional virtue, taken too
far it can have very harmful effects by leading to rampant corruption,
gross inefficiency and other ills. To combat them, reformist
governments, egged on by the International Monetary Fund and
some other organisations, are doing their best to build institutions
the general public can believe in, so people no longer have to depend
so much on their relatives or on local political bosses.