Sunday, March 29, 2020

OP-ED | 03-02-2018 13:02

When the family comes first

What most riles Macri is the proliferation in public institutions of Kirchnerite “mafias” that would like to cut short their term in office.

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.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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