WASHINGTON, December 31, 2013 ― The party of Noble Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy, NLD, announced recently it will contest the 2015 elections to be held in Myanmar even without constitutional amendments. A bone of contention is that the constitution guarantees the military 25 percent of parliamentary seats, while Aung herself is barred from the elections.
Myanmar is by all appearances ending its period as a closed and isolated society. Closed societies have controlled economies, and Myanmar’s leadership is signaling that it wants to be a full participant in global society and the world economy. As President Thein Sein said, “I would like to say that I have dedicated all my efforts to achieve peace, improve the social and economic welfare of the people and create a better and brighter future for the younger generation.”
To create a better and brighter future for the younger generation, the country’s leaders must think about the legacy they are building for a baby born today. It is time for Thein Sein to become an enlightened nationalist, time to forget past nationalism rooted in leading the nation to glory in some battle of conquest. It is now time to focus on economics. This requires leaders who understand that people need the power to act and choose for themselves, to use their own knowledge and information to make their own economic decisions. The military mind sees things in terms of rank-and-file obedience to achieve objectives set from above, the antithesis of what Manymar needs now.
The first step into open markets and a free economy is for Thein Sein to ensure a clause in the constitution that enshrines equality before the law. Without equal protection and rights under the law, a market economy cannot flourish. People must believe that they will all be treated equally under the law before they will commit to participating in free markets, entering into contracts and exchanging property rights. This ensures that all citizens can maximize potential and pursue their own dreams.
If A can open a bank, so can B, under exactly the same rules. Otherwise, Myanmar will find one ethnic group owning everything. If A can build a factory, so can B. This is enlightened nationalism.
Think about that baby being born today. What if in 40 years, that baby is a better entrepreneur than those who will become members of a political and economic elite, people protected from competition by that 40-year-old? Not only will that baby lose when it grows into adulthood; so will the entire society. We will create privileged aristocracies and elites and lose our future.
Equality before the law is a primary condition, going hand and hand with property rights. If a leader can have an opinion and express it, so can the pauper. Their rights of self-expression are equally protected, and that is free speech. If one person can own property, so can anyone else. That is a big concept.
One roadblock to this future may be the character of Myanmar’s leadership. Is Thein Sein really imagining a better future for future generations, or is it just talk? Equality before the law is a primary condition, an imperative for today, not something to get around to. As expectations of entitlement become entrenched, equality might be sacrificed in negotiations. If Thein Sein is an enlightened nationalist and worries about future generations, he would be talking to Aung San Suu Kyi and demanding from the NLD that any future constitutional negotiations must include equality before the law.
This is where Jeffrey Sachs and his kind failed in Bolivia, and elsewhere. They were technocrats who saw development in terms of mathematics. They did not understand the philosophical and practical importance of local culture, the crucial importance of fixing the legal foundations of the economy before playing around with money supply and prices. Equality before the law, not price reform, is the first step; all others are built on top of it.
Myanmar will attract planners from the IMF and the World Bank, experts and consultants from think tanks and USAID who will talk about building up capacity and free markets and balancing budgets. None of their advice will be sustainable in the long run if there is no equality before the law. Only equal economic rights of contract and property, only equal standing before the law will ensure that all can use their knowledge to help build a new and open economic and political culture. This is a labor for all of society, not just for the elites and for technocrats in ministries of economics and finance.
Knowledge must be allowed to flow. It will grow exponentially over time, beyond the capacity of planners and technocrats to manage. The sooner a society frees up its people to pursue their own desires and to create new firms to exploit new and unexpected economic niches, the sooner it will create the channels that coordinate all the private knowledge and harness it to create a vibrant economy. Technicalities like building capacity will come later and planning grand development projects will come later, if they are needed at all.
People allowed to think for themselves will build economic capacity on their own. Tein Shein has an opportunity to lead a government that will give the people of Myanmar guaranteed freedom.
The NLD has never demanded equality before the law. They are fighting for democracy and what they consider freedom, but from the same elitist mindset as the military; both believing that this is just a question of wielding power. They differ only in the goals for which they want to wield it. The NLD, like all organizations of its era, is fighting for power believing that they are the people. With that belief, they will just replace one form of oppression with another, and the spoils will fall to them instead of the military. It happens all the time.
Many fancy suits will come to Myanmar saying “do this” and “do that” with your natural resources. How well will that work in the long run if the resources are grabbed from the people and used in the name of the people without the consent and input of the people? With equality before the law, property rights are crucial. It is through property rights that the people will have economic votes.
Can Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi both overcome elitist thinking and become enlightened nationalists who will bequeath a free Myanmar to future generations? Myanmar needs the likes of George Washington and America’s Founding Fathers, not a new set of elitists in charge, however enlightened.
“The country will have an open and free society only if the ongoing political reforms continue,” said President Thein Sein recently. Whilst reforms continue, it would be wise to keep thinking of the babies born today. Will our new system be fair to them? The task ahead is about believing in the future. When we die and the world goes on, what little will we have done to make it better for our progeny as a whole?
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