There is more rice on Java than there is

In defence of democracy and good governance.

In 1859 Eduard Douwes Dekker, alias Multatuli, wrote his furious denunciation of the Dutch government of its East-Indies colonies, modern Indonesia. It was a long and eclectic novel, to which self hero-worship was integral: Max Havelaar. In it Dekker, a former colonial official, considered the contrast between the often well-intentioned if sadly paternalistic laws voted by the Dutch government, and the bad governance he had observed in the colonies. How was this possible? Dekker sarcastically commented:

The government of the Dutch Indies prefers to write to its masters in the motherland that all is as well as could be wished. The residents are pleased to report this to the government. The assistant-residents, who themselves receive almost nothing but favourable reports from their comptrollers, equally dislike sharing unpleasant news with the residents.

The results of this artificial optimism, Dekker complained, were absurd. The written reports were often obviously untrue. Even attempts to avoid famine were stymied, not out of deliberate cruelty, but simply because the reported numbers on internal food imports and exports didn’t add up.

There is more rice on Java than there is. That’s prosperity!

Officials were to blame for writing artificially optimistic reports, but the government shared in that guilt by rewarding them for doing so, and by accepting the impossible at face value.

Let’s leave the controversial (and often self-contradictory) Multatuli aside from the moment. He observed what happened. But why could it happen?

A key point is that the Dutch officials who ruled this colony were not accountable to the people they ruled. In a top-down autocratic system, each of them was only accountable to the person above them, and thus each of them aimed to please their superior pretty much exclusively. If they had been accountable to the people they ruled, they would have had an incentive to pass issues, complaints and demands upwards in their chain of command. The need to retain the support of their constituents would have obliged them to act as more or less effective troubleshooters.

But without any real incentive to act responsibly towards the people who were being governed, the lazy drift to bad governance was strong even if the officials themselves were merely average. They did not need to be cruel or corrupt to create and oversee an unjust and injurious system. Instead, it would have required the heroism of many to avoid it.

Years ago I was at a formal dinner with a colleague – let’s call him W – and his boss. W declared that what we needed was an efficient dictatorship. Rest assured that he was not plotting to overthrow the constitution of the USA. W only wanted to please his boss, whose autocratic tendencies were unfortunately well known. But he was wrong, and just one of the reasons for that is that there is no such thing as an efficient dictatorship. The lack of channels through which honest feedback can flow is an essential reason why dictatorships are often ridiculously inefficient. (It is by no means the only one.) Forget the often-told story about Mussolini making the trains run on time: It was a joke. Instead, read the accounts of Mussolini’s interactions with this generals: These absurd conferences would have been tragicomic if the tragedy of war had not so completely crowded out the comedy.

And this is why democracy makes sense. I have officiated at elections, and one cannot deny that sadly, many voters are fools. But that doesn’t matter. Numerous have been the minds who wanted to restrict a say in government to the rich, to the free-born, to the well-educated, to the white, the male, to the soldiers or to the philosophers. Even if they are not bigoted, such arguments miss the point. Good government does not require smart voters. It requires smart politicians who are held accountable by the people, all of the people. If you are poor, uneducated and a criminal, it is still important that your voice is heard and your interests are represented.

This is, ultimately, why the defence of colonial systems falls apart: Bad governance was never an accidental mishap, but one that was part and parcel of their fundamental nature. The achievements of the rulers (and of course there were some) could never compensate for the negative consequences of the imbalance of power, and these were inevitable.

It is also one of the cardinal problems of modern management as we know it. I once was in a meeting where someone took exception to a slide that declared that we should learn from our mistakes. This anodyne statement, it was argued, was too negative. It implied that we make mistakes. Despite the Catch-22 incongruity of this argument, the slide was quickly modified to eliminate the dreadful word! Such silliness is the ultimate consequence of treating CEOs like little gods who never get to see a facility that is not freshly painted before their visit, and have communications specialists who see it as their job to exude a Panglossian optimism. It is far from harmless. Unfortunately, only an unusually strong leader wishes to be held accountable.

Realism comes at a price. It creates friction. As Dekker wryly commented, it interferes with the writing of reports on the quiet quietness. But the price for not having your feet put firmly on the ground is much higher.

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