PAUL FRIJTERS. Our Countries Need Us

Humanity is at a high point. What our ancestors dreamed of is slowly becoming a reality: a world without hunger in which the vast majority of mankind live peaceful and long lives. We are not there yet, but in Europe, East Asia, Latin America, and even in Africa (our cradle), mankind is emerging from dark times. People live longer, healthier, happier, and more educated lives. Paid for and organised by countries, helped by international flows of people and information.

And yet, our countries are under threat from a disconnect between the elites and the population of individual countries.

The elites are having a great time. They can live almost anywhere they want; they have access to all the food and living space they could wish for; and their children are assured a fantastic education and long lives, aided by all the ingenious inventions of our best minds. They have multiple passports and speak multiple languages, choosing where to live, love, work and die.

This luxury has come with the temptation to abandon their role as the protectors of the institutions and cultures of their countries. Many of them feel constrained by countries, part of a world elite that runs countries and manipulates countries, but is not part of them.

So they live fluid lives, avoiding the duties that countries put on them but enjoying their hospitality and privileges. They and their companies avoid taxes. They trade on internet platforms that evade the scrutiny and regulations of nation-states, which they often re-write. They complain about the stupidity of the populations and how everyone should be like the elites. They are eroding the strength of the countries that gave rise to them.

I too am part of this group, currently living in my fourth country, welcome wherever I go. I am not a billionaire or a famous actor, but part of the academic establishment, the high priesthood of our time. We come and go as we please, enjoying the best of life, working on what we want, and dreaming of even greater powers.

My kind dreams of the world empire in which we are either the emperor or at least important members of his court. This includes the climate scientists who dream of directing the resources and energy uses of the planet. It includes the AI people who dream of a world run by hybrid entities that they create. It includes the economists who dream of transnational structures that they regulate. It includes the lawyers who dream of an international legal order. It includes the businessmen who dream of a world without government.

I too dream of a world governance system that maximises the well-being of the world, for the benefit of the living and the generations to come.

Yet, I say to myself and to you that there will be no world empire and that your country needs you. Yes, your country. You can probably choose which country you want to belong to, but your chosen country still needs you.

Your country needs your help in figuring out how to maintain a tax base so that the next generation too can enjoy a good education, a beautiful local environment, a humane law, and good health. That for instance requires you to figure out how those countries can get tax out of the internet.

Your country’s less able need you to protect their history and their self-image from the attacks to their self-esteem. That requires you to write a history that does not divide the country into victims and perpetrators but that allows everyone some dignity in the story of who they are, including a dignified self-image of who their ancestors were. So help those who are now told that they and their ancestors have always been b*stards, and that all their cultural habits are evil but those of others are not. Do not add to their belittlement by talking down to them, but help them.

Muster some sympathy for the civil servants in your country and the structures around them. They are under threat from within and without. You may not like them and sincerely think they are all useless, but you can’t have a country without a functioning and thinking civil service so help them. There is no police, no universal education, no law, no defence, or even any wealth without them. Make them better and smarter. Their enemies are your enemies, so help them win.

Have a pity for those without a yacht and without a private jet who currently look up in envy at all the images of how the elites live, afflicted by the lie that they too can reach the top as long as they tow the line and obey us. Help figure out how your country and your culture can reduce the reliance on jealousy and feelings of inadequacy to motivate the new generation of workers. Do not tell them to look up to you, but help them feel adequate and valued next to you.

Spare a thought for the criminals, the drug addicted, the ignorant, the homeless, and the miserable in your country. For we now know that you can organise countries such that you have very few of these, so do not condemn them as evil beings that need to be eradicated and hidden. They are produced, not born, so help your country figure out how to stop producing them. Think of them as real humans, even if they disgust you.

In short, please do not abandon your country by evading its demands or by despising the culture of large groups in your country. You may dream of being the world emperor: that is normal. But you are needed by your country. It needs your energy, your talents, your tolerance, and your sympathy.

Paul Frijters is a professor of wellbeing economics at the London School of Economics.

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Paul, You imply that globalisation has failed and the nation state, for all its faults, remains the way to deliver services to the population. I agree on that point. Globalisation failed because the governors are too far removed from the governed. The processes are opaque, as you economists say. Treaties like the TPP make the position even worse. The best comment I heard at the time of Brexit was from David Brooks who was a European correspondent when the Treaty of Maastricht was signed. He said the Brussels bureaucrats were indeed remote and arrogant. You also implied in your passionate… Read more »

Jerry,

I for one, am only interested in your gloomy view if you have a better plan of attack than Paul. How do you see things getting better?

Have you read Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger, Paul? I can’t put it down. As you know, I keep relating today’s politics to Keynes and Hayek, with Polanyi bringing them both down to earth. Mishra takes it back to Rousseau and Voltaire.

Taxing the elites seems preferable to sending them to re-education camps a la Mao and Pol Pot.

Paul Frijters

Re-education camps belong to the fantasy wherein the elites get overthrown. What has to happen is that part of the elites take up the mantle of the country’s protectors rather than its detractors.
I actually think that is possible. We should not give up on them out of some misguided principle that who currently seems an enemy will always remain an enemy. Many of those currently working against their countries would be happier and feel better if they turned around and helped their countries. But they need to see a way to make that switch.