Is Haiti Governable Right Now?

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The political chaos that has followed the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise reflects a broader truth: Some nation-states are simply not viable in their current form. Growing incentives for corruption, coupled with unstable internal politics, can tear apart many governments.

Haiti’s troubles are severe. A parliamentary election slated for October 2019 was not held. In the absence of a sitting parliament, political legitimacy is hard to come by and disputes about leadership succession are not easily resolved. The head of the country’s Supreme Court recently died of Covid-19. A takeover by a strongman dictator, even assuming that was an acceptable alternative, is not imminent.

In other words, at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any way to govern Haiti. One problem is that foreign flows of money, whether from the drug trade or from Venezuelan foreign aid, have overwhelmed the domestic incentives to play by the rules. Haiti’s political institutions are mostly consumed by bribes and rents, with no stable center. The news, so to speak, is that such problems do not always have solutions. At all.

It is fine to suggest that Haiti invest in building up its political institutions — but those institutions have been unraveling for decades. I was a frequent visitor to the country in the 1990s, and although the poverty was severe, it was possible to travel with only a modest risk of encountering trouble. Government was largely ineffective, but it did exist.

These days the risk of kidnapping is so high that a visit is unthinkable. In April alone Port-au-Prince reported 91 kidnappings, and probably many more went unreported. By one measure, kidnappings are up 150% compared to 2020. It is another sign that breaking the rules is more profitable than abiding by them.

Fragments of the Haitian government have responded by inviting the U.S. government to send in troops. Whatever you may think of this proposal, it is hard to see it as a solution. The U.S. occupied and ruled Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and failed to fix basic problems. The U.S. sent in troops in 1994 to restore order, and again failed to spur a Haitian political renaissance. A 13-year United Nations mission to Haiti ended in 2017, and the UN forces ended up extremely unpopular because they helped spread a cholera epidemic.

The buildup and rise of nation-states has become so ordinary that the opposite possibility is now neglected: their enduring collapse. It’s not history running in reverse. It’s that modernity has created new forces and incentives — drug money, kidnapping ransoms, payments from foreign powers, and so on — that can be stronger and more alluring than the usual reasons for supporting an internal national political order. If the rest of the world gets rich more quickly than you do, it might have the resources to effectively neutralize your incentives for peace and good government.

So where else might the political order soon unravel? In parts of Afghanistan, external forces (Pakistan, China, Russia, the U.S.) have so much at stake that the conditions there may never settle down. Other risks might be found in small, not yet fully orderly nations such as Guyana, Equatorial Guinea, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). El Salvador and Nicaragua seem to be consolidating their political orders, but at the cost of losing fair democratic political competition. The nation-state as we know it might not survive in every part of Nigeria, where the recent surge in kidnappings is striking.

In the Baltics and Taiwan, dangers from larger, aggressive neighbors lurk. In spite of generally good governance in these places, the pressures from outside powers might be too much to bear, reflecting broadly similar destabilizing mechanisms — namely, that the internal rewards for coordinating support for a status quo might not be high enough.

It is unclear what the U.S. should do about Haiti. It has an obligation to try to help, but it’s possible that not much can be done. The stability of the nation-state arose from a particular set of historical and technological circumstances that may or may not continue.

There is a Haitian proverb: “The constitution is paper, bayonets are steel.”

In the early 19th century, when its enslaved people threw off foreign rule and fought a war of liberation, Haiti was a model for a better world. This time around, the world should hope that what is happening in Haiti is not a sign of things to come elsewhere.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

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