Is the First World Turning Soft?
Third World Here We Come
by Barbara Crossette
NEW YORK -- A Thai government planner once tried to explain to me why people all over Bangkok were getting away with drilling illegal wells, pulling the city ever deeper into the bog on which it rests. "We are a soft state," he said with a wry smile.
It was a nod to the Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal and his seminal 1968 book "Asian Drama." Almost everywhere in what was then proudly called the Third World, what grabbed attention was Myrdal's cautionary take on what happens in countries where breaking rules and flouting laws is a cultural norm. He focused particularly on South Asia.
Too bad that Myrdal, who died in 1987, is not with us today. A "soft state," he wrote, is one where "governments require extraordinarily little of their citizens" and "even those obligations that do exist are enforced inadequately, if at all." He thought that a low level of what he called "social discipline" divided emerging South Asian countries from Western nations at a similar, earlier stage of industrialization.
What would Myrdal have made of reports that have been piling up in recent years about Americans' failures to police themselves? Would he have detected a "Third Worlding" of America? Do Indian and American democracies have more in common than we think? This all has little or nothing to do with morality or religion; put that red herring to rest. The epidemic feels more like some kind of civic exhaustion.
In small American towns, it means nobody volunteering for the volunteer fire department, or going to crucial community meetings, not to mention bothering to vote or fighting to strengthen public schools.
In developing countries, a fatal gap in the social and political order is often the lack of grassroots self-government. Traveling with a Pakistani candidate for Parliament a decade ago, I saw people plead at campaign stops for help with health problems, land disputes, personal feuds and consumer complaints. "They have no one else to go to," she said. "There is no local authority here to help them." In the poorest countries, a huge percentage of privileged children who get a good education go to private or religious schools, because public education has atrophied if it ever really existed. Would Myrdal fault the U.S. Supreme Court and the voucher lobby for steering America in the same direction?
Americans build bigger houses and higher walls. Almost any Third World city has, arguably, more gated communities than the suburbs of New York, and many more walls keeping out the poor. Is that America's model?
In the wake of terrorist attacks on the United States, a portrait of inattention, small-minded squabbling and downright slovenliness in law enforcement and intelligence agencies has been emerging. Anyone in law or journalism who has tried to pursue a criminal investigation in most developing nations knows that there is almost never a resolution, or even enough evidence to make a judgment, usually because of shoddy police work.
Most recently, we learned that American banks, eager for profits and not too fussy about checking identities, have been allowing suspected terrorists to move money around at will. Anything-goes banking helped deliver the Southeast Asian economic crises five years ago.
And then there is crony capitalism. That and the now all too familiar laxity of regulators are primarily what sabotaged the economic progress of Asian tigers like Thailand and Indonesia, long before governments got bad advice, if it was bad advice, from the International Monetary Fund.
Just after Myrdal dissected the soft state, the late Bernard D. Nossiter, a New York Times correspondent in India, was coming to some of the same conclusions. He noted that by the 1960s Indians were sounding alarms, as Americans are doing now. While writing his 1970 book "Soft State: A Newspaperman's Chronicle of India," Nossiter found this now timeless and perhaps universally applicable passage in the Economic Times of Bombay:
"Indian democracy seems to be entering dangerous waters. The real danger is not military dictatorship or even chaos - India fortunately is too big for either - but apathy, cynicism, stagnation, shameless self-seeking."
(c)2002 the International Herald Tribune