Volume 4, Number 110
20 October 2004

Note: When he isn't running around the world the way I used to, Loren Cobb has been a member of my Monday-breakfast discussion group on world affairs. Last Monday we discussed the path to a durable peace, and I suggested he write up his thoughts so I could share them with my readers.

Robin and I leave today for two weeks in the Hawaiian islands. First we will visit our daughter Judy (who lives in Honolulu) and then, for R and R, take an inter-island cruise while Robin recuperates from a mild heart attack of three weeks ago. At Meeting last Sunday, I couldn't think what R and R stood for, so I said "Relief and Reconstruction." Well, just as good, don't you think? — Jack

The Path to a Durable Peace

by Loren Cobb

Dear Friends,

Who am I? Well, I am a consulting mathematician, a Quaker, and a pacifist, roughly in that order. Unlike most mathematicians, I focus exclusively on the social sciences, on creating and refining dynamic models of how societies develop and evolve. For the last ten years or so, I have been working closely with the national leadership and armed forces of more than a dozen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, with funding from the US Department of Defense. In the past I have worked on converting military units to peacekeeping operations for the United Nations, and to the handling of complex humanitarian emergencies.

In recent years my focus has shifted to the institutional and psychosocial ills that prey upon and cripple entire societies and their governments. Nowadays I work with the highest levels of national leadership in a group of six Latin American countries, running seminars and exercises in the long-range planning and execution of major structural reforms. Our focus is always on the primary threats to national security that these countries face; the list of threats always begins with two universal items: poverty and corruption, and frequently includes lesser items such as narcotrafficking, organized crime, the effects of globalization, problems of governance and institutional weakness, immigration, and contraband.

In my experience with the Third World, which began as a young boy living near a refugee camp in Lahore, Pakistan, peace is seldom threatened by military war between nations, even though these wars receive the most attention in history. The absence of peace is, instead, far more an issue of civil war and local conflict, of urban violence and rural lawlessness, of domestic violence and the abuse and neglect of children. For me the dichotomy frequently drawn between war and peace is misleading in the extreme. When peace does not exist at the level of families, towns, cities, or ethnic groups, then we have a problem every bit as serious as formal warfare. Peace is a critical attribute that extends across all levels of society, with equal importance at each level.

In Spanish there is a word which is commonly used to describe an important category of government agencies, the category that includes health, education, welfare, social security, and labor. This word is "psico-social." It translates to "psychosocial," but here in North America we would never use that particular adjective to describe this set of agencies. To our ears it sounds too psychological, but to Latin ears it is right on target. I think the difference is important: the actions of these agencies have effects on the psychological well-being of citizens, effects that we here in the North prefer to ignore. But those effects do exist, there are profound psychological consequences that flow from failures to educate, to protect mothers and children from harm, to provide basic public health services, to prosecute wage slavery and inhuman working conditions, to provide the services of an impartial system of justice. Without these fundamental services, entire generations grow up hopeless and alienated, traumatized and ignorant, prone to extremes of violence and to the recapitulation upon their children of every wrong done to them. This is not the path to peace, it is the path to stagnation and despair, and to sudden eruptions of extraordinary violence and outright war.

It is easy to point out psychosocial problems of this nature, but it is quite another matter to do something about them. The social institutions whose weaknesses most contribute to psychosocial ills are highly resistant to reform. Let’s take a moment to see how this works, let us take a little journey through governmental structures that have been afflicted with the institutional illness known as "corruption" (a terrible word, in my opinion, but I am forced to use it in order to communicate).

In the American post-civil-war era we had a system of government called the "spoils system." The political party that controlled the presidency had the power to appoint civil servants to positions throughout government, regardless of qualifications or experience. In effect, civil service positions were the spoils of political victory.

In most of Latin America, just as in most of Africa and some of Asia, this same system persists today. If you want a job in government, you apply to the political party in power, and pay a fee for a job. A customs job at the border, for example, may cost thousands of dollars up front, and a percentage of your monthly salary. You will have to recoup these fees somehow while on the job, but since your salary is well below any reasonable standard of living your only hope is to extort bribes and fees from the citizens over whom you have some power by virtue of your new position. This is where corruption starts.

Political parties, of course, wish to maximize their income and power. The obvious way to do this is to increase the number of civil service jobs over which they have control. All parties like to do this, and therefore legislatures are happy to pass bills that increase the size of the civil service.

Bureaucrats cannot extract bribes without having real power over the people who come to their offices, and without bribes they won't be able to pay back the political parties to whom they owe their jobs. Therefore the legislature approves new regulations that their bureaucrats can enforce, with fees, paperwork, and endless waiting in lines. In many countries there is an honorable profession of line-standers, honest people who can be hired to stand in these endless and pointless lines, pay the fees and bribes, fill out the paperwork, and generally make the system work after a fashion. Without them entire economies would come to a grinding halt.

If you talk to political people in Latin America, you will often hear of the evils of corruption. In fact, it is often presented as a moral problem: the corrupt ones are bad, immoral, evil people. The cure that is most often presented is stricter moral education, tougher laws, more religion, better social values. I don’t believe a word of it. In my view this is a systemic problem: the structure of these institutions is so weak that they could corrupt an angel, if one were so unlucky as to try to make a living as a bureaucrat. It has almost nothing to do with personal morality, and everything to do with institutional designs and structures. Reshape the incentives for personal behavior, and these institutions will begin fulfilling their intended functions — while employing the same people as before.

The question of morality at this institutional level mirrors, in an interesting way, similar questions of morality at the personal level. In North and South America alike, parents who abuse or neglect their children are branded as criminals, and their immorality is denounced in the popular press. Laborers who go on strike, who block roads or commit acts of sabotage are similarly excoriated by an angry press as hoodlums or worse. Yet I believe that these deplorable acts are the symptoms not of moral decay but of structural deficiencies in government and society itself. Let me cite just one of many reasons why I think this way. Haiti is country that is mired in poverty and afflicted by appalling violence and criminal behavior. Yet those Haitians who somehow arrive in Miami become, almost overnight, model citizens. They have strong families, very little crime or violence of any kind, they run successful businesses, they go to school and vote and fully participate in the peaceful life of their communities. How could this be possible, if it were a matter of intrinsic personal morality?

Over the years I have gradually come to the idea that the urge to treat social ills as moral in nature is actually part of the problem. This is just as true at the personal level as it is at the institutional or national level, in my view. Morality — the labeling of behavior as good or bad — is a seriously misguided and dysfunctional system of thought, one that can do far more harm than good.

In the place of morality I suggest that we adopt the medical model for assessing institutions and cultures. Let’s not ask whether a person or an institution is good or bad, instead let us ask whether it is healthy or ill. A civil service that appoints people to positions based on the spoils system is best viewed as unhealthy. By avoiding the superheated rhetoric of moral denunciation, we cool down the discourse and allow people to seek out structural reforms. This, in my view, will ultimately be effective — in stark contrast to every attempt to prosecute corrupt national leaders with thundering denunciations and show trials.

Beginning in the 19th century, the United States and many European countries went through a century-long process of reform efforts aimed at professionalizing every aspect of government and eliminating every vestige of the spoils system. This was largely successful, though the US notably lags behind all northern European countries, and has been backsliding since the time of Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, I believe that we can identify a very long-term reform path, whose ultimate goal is to bring peace and prosperity to every level of society, from families to institutions to ethnic groups, and finally to the family of nations themselves.

The details of this pathway to durable peace are fascinating in their own right. Police forces, for example, must be reformed from the top down, unlike other forms of civil service which must be professionalized from the bottom up. Legislative impunity is helpful at early stages in the process, but not towards the end of the process. A myriad details like these need to studied and described and understood. Best of all, this is actually being done as we speak here today, internationally, by dedicated people both inside and outside of government.

This may sound like dry and academic stuff, but my experience tells me the opposite. When I am in a full-scale national strategy exercise, with real-world problems and role players from the highest levels of government and international institutions, the room fairly crackles with the electricity of political change. This is exciting beyond the ken of most people, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be engaged in these efforts, at this stage in history. When the issue is lifting an entire people out of misery and poverty, disease and domestic violence, and bringing them to the brink of peace and prosperity, that’s when things really get exciting.

Sincerely your friend,

Loren Cobb

P.S. For more about me, pleas visit my website. For news about the worldwide effort to place governance upon a solid foundation, visit the Development Gateway.

Title changed, 10 Jan 2006.

Readers' Comments:

My very best to Loren Cobb. I support a world view that empowers individuals to take action. That of God is in each, including the border guard and truck driver exchanging cash to subvert some regulation or law. When these same folks act on decisions within their control, faith often guides them differently than when they participate in systemic corruption. I would love to observe and learn in one of these exercises!

— Chris Viavant, Salt Lake City (UT) Meeting.

Kudos to Loren Cobb!  Fascinating to read about the corrupt systems that shape the "incentives for personal behavior" and seem to create a downward spiral of bad behavior in society. Encouraging ( and sort of surprising ) to read that more than a dozen countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, have been working to improve. If these dozen or so countries have had political systems that led to systemic institutional design problems, I wonder what sparked a desire to improve or redesign those systems?  I wonder what tipped their political systems toward seeking institutional systems that would generate a virtuous circle of improving personal behavior in society? It seems that many countries have systems that are "stuck" because too many people in those countries have a vested interest in the existing corrupt system.

— John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Meeting.

Great. I sent it to my friends.

— David Baldt.

Loren Cobb's analysis doesn't mention the contribution to poverty and lack of education made by the enormous expenditure on armaments, surely an important aspect of formal warfare.

I greatly appreciate his discussion of the structural basis of "corruption".

— Theo Tulley, Pickering and Hull Meeting, United Kingdom.

Yikes! It was already a major struggle to address just one structural issue (corruption) within the narrow boundaries of this newsletter. I will be glad to address the issue of military expenditures in a subsequent letter. To my way of thinking, institutional weaknesses and lack of transparency lead to extremely poor decisions with respect to armaments, but the reverse does not hold. Therefore military expenditures are not the fundamental problem. — Loren

My heart jumped with elation when I read this article of Loren's. His understanding of the roots of social ills as being 'systemic' resonates with me. Here in South Africa, for instance, I have noticed that when instances of civil unrest are reported the unrest is, almost always, as a consequence of frustrations that are being experienced by citizens because of bureaucratic bungling or corruption, or both together, which then impacts the fair and equitable allocation of scarce resources.

— Rory Short, Johannesburg (South Africa) Meeting


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

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Copyright © 2004 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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