My Interview in a Tunisian Paper


I was interviewed by a Tunisian journalist whom I met at a conference Cato co-sponsored in Morocco. Here’s the interview in Mouwatinoun. (The name of the paper means “Citizens.” You have to scroll down to page 10 of the PDF.) The interview in English is in the rest of this blog entry.

Question 1 : The Middle Eastern countries have in common their economic wealth on the one hand, and their democratic â??povertyâ?, what are the reason for that according to you?

That is one of the most important questions that political scientists and economists face today. First, however, it’s worth a moment to clarify some issues. Average per capita income in most middle eastern countries is not high. It’s much lower than even poor Eastern European countries. Because some countries have oil, many people think that those countries or the people in those countries are rich. That’s a mistake. The existence of natural resources is not the primary cause of a nation’s wealth, as Adam Smith explained so long ago in his famous book “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” A natural resource, if it is monopolized by the state — and oil is a very good example — can make your country very poor. If a country enjoyed the rule of law and well defined and legally secure property rights before oil was discovered, the oil becomes a source of prosperity. Consider the USA, Canada, Great Britain, and Norway as examples. But if the rule of law and legally secure property rights were not well established and then oil was discovered, it turned out to be a curse, because it was monopolized by the state or by ruiling dynasties and that source of wealth to the rulers obstructed the evolution to democracy. When the state depends on income from a resource, such as oil, and not on the support of the people through broad-based taxes, then people become dependent on the state, and that is not a good recipe for democracy.

The causes of the relative economic decline of most middle eastern countries are complex, but mainly they center on the lack of the rule of law and accountable government. The reasons for that lack are harder to explain. One scholar who has addressed the issue is Professor Timur Kuran, a professor of law and economics and the King Faisal Professor of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California. His article “Why the Middle East is Economically Underdeveloped: Historical Mechanisms of Institutional Stagnation” is helpful to understanding the complex root causes. [The Essay is available on]

Russia is an example of a country that is losing its hard won democracy because of the influx of oil revenues to the state, which is strengthening itself against civil society. Much the same process is going on in Venezuela. There is a short-term increase in wealth, but the long-term conditions of prosperity — democracy and limited government — are undermined, with terrible consequences for the medium to long term.

Question 2: Why do internal reform movements fail in influencing the nature and form of government in the region?

You do like to pose very difficult problems! If I knew the definitive answer, I would be sure to share it with everyone. I think that there is probably not just one reason and that the situations of countries differ enough to make a general answer of little value. The biggest problem is that the core ruling groups have managed to create forms of dependency on them from other groups in society. That process was well described in the 17th Century by the French writer Etienne de la Boetie in his “Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.” Generally speaking, some degree of economic freedom and security for property are conditions for the emergence of successful democratic transitions. A middle class that is secure in the possession of property and that has the means to promote an open political system will be more likely to succeed in dislodging entrenched ruling groups. That was the case with the transition of South Korea and Taiwan from dictatorships to rather stable democracies. One thing bears remembering: transitions that are violent almost never result in democratic outcomes, even if that’s the desired outcome. Violent transitions set the precedent for yet more violent transitions and typically result in government by coup d’etat, rather than democracy.

Question 3: While it was proven that democratization through foreign military intervention has negative consequences as in the Iraqi case, do you think that the American intervention under the premise of reforming the region had the opposite results?

It’s probably too early to give a definitive answer to this question. I am generally skeptical that democracy can be injected into a country from outside. The normal rule is that it has to be generated from within. The U.S. could, I think, do a better job of promoting democracy simply by setting an example, rather than by intervening in the political processes of other countries. Such intervention has rarely resulted in democratic outcomes and is better avoided. I think that the Americans are learning that. I hope so.

Question 4: The American administration under George Walker Bush in that direction (sic.) is trying to contain political islamist movements and to create â??moderateâ? groups while pressuring Arab governments to integrate those in their political processes, do you think that this policy would empty democratic [reform] from its substance?

I’ll be direct and honest. I don’t think that the officials of the U.S. government generally know enough about Arab political systems to exert positive influence. Many of them — maybe most or even all of them — may have good motivations, but good motivations are certainly not enough. You also have to have understanding and wisdom and they seem to lack that and often find themselves merely being manipulated by governments and factions. Some governments have suppressed moderate opposition in various ways and that has left a choice of either the governing regime or people who offer a very radical and intolerant alternative. That has proven useful at manipulating the population and also at manipulating foreign governments.

Question 6: on another topic, American media speaks rarely of Tunisia, and American political and human right organizations have little interest in Tunisia, what is the reason for that in your opinion?

There are many countries that are not discussed much in the American media and many of them offer much more dire human rights problems than Tunisia. They tend to get more attention from human rights organizations to the extent that they are engaged in widespread acts of killing or genocide, such as in Sudan or Rwanda, and to the extent that they are considered by the government to be strategically significant. Tunisia, as a result, gets less attention than many other countries.

Question 6: you wrote â??By attempting to rob from some to give to others, a state merely creates universal poverty, except, of course, for those who manage to gain supreme power, and who never lack for palaces and expensive cars. The defense of justice against aggression and violence must be the primary concern of the state. When the state itself becomes an instrument of aggression and violence, democracy itself is in danger.â? How can this equation be inverted by turning the state from a means by which one would get rich and accumulate wealth to a tool guaranteeing justice for all?

Now you’ve asked the hardest question of all! We now know very well what policies produce prosperity and a healthy society: the rule of law that is enforced through an independent judiciary; well defined and legally secure property rights; freedom of trade; a free press; limited government and a tax system that is low and relatively simple. As Adam Smith said in 1755, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” The evidence that Smith was right is well established in the studies of the “Economic Freedom of the World Report” ( But what we don’t know, or at least we do not have a good understanding of, is how to produce the policies that produce good results. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto addressed that question in his book “The Mystery of Capital” (De Sotoâ??s work is also available on, which offered some insights, but more thinking is needed to understand how we move from lack of the rule of law and lack of property rights to the rule of law and security of rights.

One thing we do know is that a liberal mentality is a part of the transition; by that I mean a desire for freedom and justice but without revenge. Successful transitions to freedom almost always happen by changing minds, not merely by changing rulers. If we want to live in freedom, justice, and prosperity, we must change minds.

Thank you for this delightful opportunity to chat. You posed some very, very difficult problems.