Liberty, equality, prosperity
Tunisia’s democratic revolution has set off a cascade of events
elsewhere in the region-particularly in Egypt-with untold consequences.
The eyes of the world are now on this small country of 10 million, to
learn the lessons of its recent experience and to see if the young
people who overthrew a corrupt autocrat can create a stable, functioning
Tunisian revolution also known as Jasmine revolution.
Picture courtesy: Google
First, the lessons. For starters, it is not enough for governments to
deliver reasonable growth. After all, GDP grew at around five percent
annually in Tunisia over the last 20 years and the country was often
cited as boasting one of the better-performing economies in the region.
Nor is it enough to follow the dictates of international financial
markets - that may get good bond ratings and please international
investors, but it does not mean that jobs are being created or that
standards of living are being increased for most citizens. Indeed, the
fallibility of the bond markets and rating agencies was evident in the
run-up to the 2008 crisis.
That they now looked with disfavour at Tunisia’s move from
authoritarianism to democracy does not redound to their credit and
should never be forgotten.
Even providing good education may not suffice. All over the world,
countries are struggling to create enough jobs for new entrants into the
labour force. High unemployment and pervasive corruption, however,
create a combustible combination. Economic studies show that what is
really important to a country’s performance is a sense of equity and
If, in a world of scarce jobs, those with political connections get
them and if, in a world of limited wealth, government officials
accumulate masses of money - then the system will generate outrage at
such inequities, as well as at the perpetrators of these ‘crimes’.
Outrage at bankers in the West is a milder version of the same basic
demand for economic justice that we saw first in Tunisia and now across
Virtuous though democracy is and as Tunisia has shown, it is far
better than the alternative - we should remember the failures of those
who claim its mantle and that there is more to true democracy than
periodic elections, even when they are conducted fairly.
Democracy in the United States, for example, has been accompanied by
increasing inequality, so much so that the upper one percent now
receives around one-quarter of national income - with wealth being even
more inequitably distributed.
Indeed, most Americans today are worse off than they were a decade
ago, with almost all the gains from economic growth going to the very
top of the income and wealth distribution. And corruption American-style
can result in trillion-dollar gifts to pharmaceutical companies, the
purchase of elections with massive campaign contributions and tax cuts
for millionaires as medical care for the poor is cut.
Moreover, in many countries, democracy has been accompanied by civil
strife, factionalism and dysfunctional governments. In this regard,
Tunisia starts on a positive note: a sense of national cohesion created
by the successful overthrow of a widely hated dictator. Tunisia must
strive to maintain that sense of cohesion, which requires a commitment
to transparency, tolerance and inclusiveness - both politically and
A sense of fair play requires voice, which can be achieved only
through public dialogue. Everyone stresses the rule of law, but it
matters what kind of rule is established. Laws can be used to ensure
equality of opportunity and tolerance, or they can be used to maintain
inequalities and the power of elites.
Tunisia may not be able to prevent special interests from capturing
its government, but, if public financing of electoral campaigns and
restrictions on lobbying and revolving doors between the public and
private sectors remain absent, such capture will be not only possible,
but certain. Commitments to transparent privatization auctions and
competitive bidding for procurement reduce the scope for rent-seeking
There are many balancing acts to be mastered: a government that is
too powerful might violate citizens’ rights, but a government that is
too weak would be unable to undertake the collective action needed to
create a prosperous and inclusive society-or to prevent powerful private
actors from preying on the weak and defenseless. Latin America has shown
that there are problems with term limits for political officeholders,
but not having term limits is even worse.
So constitutions need to be flexible. Enshrining economic-policy
fads, as the European Union has done with its central bank’s
single-minded focus on inflation, is a mistake. But certain rights, both
political (freedom of religion, speech and press) and economic, need to
A good place for Tunisia’s debate to begin is deciding how far beyond
the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the
country should go in writing its new Constitution.
Tunisia is off to an amazingly good start. Its people have acted with
purpose and thoughtfulness in setting up an interim government, as
Tunisians of talent and achievement have, on a moment’s notice,
volunteered to serve their country at this critical juncture. It will be
the Tunisians themselves who will create the new system, one that may
serve as a beacon for what a 21st Century democracy might be like.
For its part, the international community, which so often has propped
up authoritarian regimes in the name of stability (or on the principle
that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’) has a clear responsibility to
provide whatever assistance Tunisia needs in the coming months and
The writer is a Nobel laureate in economics and a Columbia