“To establish the rule of law, the first five centuries are always the most difficult. These are wise words from former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown Institutions protecting individual freedoms are necessarily the result of slow and steady development. The Anglosphere did not arrive at liberal-democratic capitalism overnight. As we watch the Afghan government crumble and the Taliban take control, we see once again that nation building has not worked. It would never work.
We cannot impose democracy from the top down.
Blame President Biden for the withdrawal fiasco, but not for the failure to turn the graveyard of empires into a modern state. The pride of the past two decades has a deeper source. The “experts”, both civilian and military, believed that they could export liberal democracy and free enterprise to a nation without any historical experience of the political and cultural mores necessary for the flourishing of these institutions.
Nation building is doomed to fail. To understand why, let’s consider one of the most important economists of the 20th century: FA Hayek. Although he won the Nobel Prize for his work on business cycles, he is best known for his work on the “problem of knowledge” as a critic of socialism. Simply put, the knowledge required to coordinate a large division of labor cannot be harnessed by a single person or group of experts. Information is often tacit, defying quantification and communication. We need markets to channel this knowledge, creating social intelligence that is greater than the sum of its parts. Bureaucrats and politicians thinking they can plan more than businesses and households is nothing more than ‘pretense of knowledge’.
Hayek’s later work on political and legal theory extended this idea to institutions supporting markets: property rights, common law, and constitutional democracy. Nor can these be designed or imposed from the top down. They must grow organically. Thanks to Hayek, we know that rationalism in politics is just as dangerous as in economics, if not more.
Nowhere is this better described than in the work of economist Christopher Coyne. His book, After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy, details the dangers of attempting to build or rebuild nation states. His work should be required reading for any serious student of international relations, as well as for policy makers arrogant enough to think they can build a country when they can’t even balance their own budget.
Coyne argues that successful reconstruction, as in the case of Afghanistan, requires “building, and in some cases building from scratch, formal and informal institutions in order to effect fundamental political, economic and social changes. “. The citizens of the imposed nation must learn to live as comfortably in the new institutions as in the old ones. But the required social and political know-how cannot be transferred. The result is a permanent friction between the rulers and the ruled.
To complicate matters, a intervening government simply cannot know all the information needed to plan and implement sweeping top-down institutional changes. The web of political and legal rules that make up prosperous countries is more like an ecosystem than an engineering problem. Nation building is as much a fatal vanity as central planning.
So what to do with oppressive regimes and immense human suffering? There is no silver bullet, but it is much better to live up to our ideals than to impose those ideals on others.
First of all, focus on free trade. When goods cross borders, so do ideas. It is when ideas are adopted that policies – and regimes – change. Second, look at immigration. If we are serious about alleviating human misery, allow those who want to live on Liberal Democrats to do so. For Afghanistan, that means bringing as many refugees here as they want.
Should involve can. If nation building is not possible, it is absurd for us to try. Our madman’s run in Afghanistan cost nearly a trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. President John Quincy Adams long ago warned against the temptation for America to venture abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” We have ignored his wisdom, with tragic results. What we need above all is to embrace humility in foreign policy. We are not the savior or the keeper of the world. To pretend otherwise will only create misery.
Alexander William Salter is Professor of Economics at Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University and Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute. Abigail R Hall is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Bellarmine. She is the co-author of Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of US Militarism.