What makes good government? This is one of the questions I ask my international civics and government students each quarter as I teach about the U.S. Constitution.
Since most students are from China, Vietnam and Indonesia, this question resonates. I visited Zimbabwe recently. After I returned, I talked with a man from Nicaragua. I learned two perspectives about government. Both provide a negative counterpoint to what makes good government.
Zimbabwe: A medical doctor living in Johannesburg but born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, offered me the following appraisal of her native land. When Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980, he and his cronies stripped the nation of its wealth by appropriating land of white property owners. They then gave the land to friends and relatives or to natives who had no idea about efficient farm production. The country went from being a breadbasket of southern Africa to a net importer of food.
The economy crashed.
To pay the bills, the government printed more paper money. This caused runaway inflation. When I was there, I bought two $10,000,000 Zimbabwean bills for my grandchildren. The cost was $1.50 in U.S. cash. The U.S. dollar is now their currency and inflation has stabilized.
The medical doctor believes that since that level of wealth has been stripped, the government is looking for more ways to strip off another level of wealth.
Individuals high in government are taking tax dollars and filling suitcases with the money. They leave the country to deposit the money in places like Swiss bank accounts or to buy foreign investments.
But runaway inflation is beginning to rear its ugly head again due to this theft of the nation’s wealth. One of the people I stayed with asked me if she could go to the gas station with me and use her debit card to buy my gas. Then I would repay her with the U.S. cash I had brought with me.
In Zimbabwe, citizens can only withdraw $50 a day from cash machines. Often, as the woman told me, she has to wait all day in line to get that $50. It’s easier to ask foreigners for cash through transactions. She told me she was willing to repeat the process, but I had run out of most of my U.S. cash by then.
Nicaragua: Upon my return from southern Africa I had a conversation with a man from Nicaragua. I asked him what the government was like under President Daniel Ortega. In a 10-minute summary, this Nicaraguan man told me how the Ortega clan controls his country. They have used their control to accumulate wealth for themselves. Much of the country has been stripped of its wealth. The Ortega family has gained control of the major industries and businesses. Ortega uses the government in collusion with these enterprises to enrich himself and his children.
The rest of the nation has to share what remains. People are allowed to own and create businesses as long as they do not compete with the Ortega holdings. This pattern can be seen in most of Latin America where a few families control the wealth of most nations.
Since the Nicaraguan man has an uncle who played a major part in the Nicaraguan revolution, he has been able to avoid crossing Ortega family interests. His American wife also has a close relative who was the American ambassador to Nicaragua. This high level influence has insulated them from government interference in their business and charity, which provides medical and educational care to the native poor.
The few wealthy in both Zimbabwe and Nicaragua benefit while the majority of their populations are stifled from reaching their full educational and economic potentials.
Neither of these countries are examples of what makes good government.
Good government comes as a result of careful checks upon the power of the few wealthy. Good government occurs when power is divided between executive, legislative and judicial branches in what is called separation of power. Good government can only exist and thrive when the majority of people in the country have a voice and the power to effect peaceful change.
We are fortunate to be living in such a country. The question, as Ben Franklin asked more than 240 years ago, was whether we can keep it.