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Governance and Enlightenment

Governance and related issues continue to be given attention by development agencies. Is there anything we can learn from the Scottish Enlightenment on the issue of governance?

Governance and Enlightenment

The United States has raised repeatedly the question of promoting democracy in fragile states. The United Kingdom has repeatedly called for the development of good governance in parts of the developing world, in sub-Saharan Africa in particular. The significance of forms of government for the social and economic welfare of populations is not a new topic. Aristotle thought about the topic. Thomas Aquinas had something to say about it. In the 18th century members of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, all had something say about the importance of good government and the rule of law for economic development. The development of ‘civil society’ was of considerable concern to such thinkers and to their American counterparts.

Governance is concerned with how states make political and economic decisions and how politicians and administrations relate to society, to the constitution and to the rule of law. If development means an increasing capacity to create incomes, to raise social welfare and engage in trade then stability and legality would seem to be important and enduring issues, as Enlightenment thinkers argued. Where ‘governance’ is ‘good’, then the prospect of raising social welfare and incomes through a combination of government action and the market is better than where the situation is less good. Where ‘governance’ is poor, government and the state hinder the development of social welfare and incomes. Democracy itself encourages participation and involvement and this is more likely to lead to better policy and more fulfilled lives.

There has been considerable research put into defining the characteristics of good governance in a variety of contexts. The elements have been defined and categorized. The African Commission Report high-lighted the governance issue with respect to sub-Saharan Africa as a key issue. But is the issue really amenable to outside influence to any significant extent? Is there any real possibility of change unless and until it becomes the focused desire of change-oriented politicians and a supportive domestic constituency? Fragile states can get addicted to debt and lapse into poor behavior.

The Scottish Enlightenment thought that it was the middling-classes of society that could merge ‘virtue’ with the demands of ‘commercialization’. The ruling classes were too open to temptation and the poor too distracted by their poverty. Maybe we are clear about what ought to be done but as outsiders cannot in fact do very much. If the Africa Report is right, the action must be perhaps with African politicians (but remember the Enlightenment’s warning). Professional people working to international standards of professional behavior may be should also be given a chance. Through the internet, the domestic representatives of civil society can also make use of the ‘politics of shame’ though this is more likely to have successes where governance is relatively good. There is something or someone in such contexts capable of feeling shame and so capable of undertaking changes in behavior and hence in ‘governance’. Politicians often seek out praise. Perhaps there should also be a ‘politics of praise worthiness’ (praise worthiness is a term used in Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments)where attention is drawn to positive behavior that ought to be reinforced. Maybe international policy advisors should have another look at the social philosophy of the Enlightenment.