Monday, March 23, 2015

II Leopold II's

The Predictioneer's Game, B. Masqueita

[King Leopold] II, remembered today as Belgium’s Builder King, reigned from 1865 to 1909. A constitutional monarch who, like many of his contemporaries, longed for the bygone days of absolute power, he was nonetheless an unusually influential and activist king who helped make Belgians free, prosperous, and secure.

Belgium’s good works during Leopold’s reign are almost uncountable. He oversaw the expansion of political freedom with the adoption of universal adult male suffrage in competitive elections, putting his country on a firm footing to become a modern democracy. On the economic front, he encouraged free-trade policies that guided Belgium to remarkable growth. In little Belgium, coal production, the engine of industry in nineteenth-century Europe, rose to such heights that it almost equaled that of France. Social policy too moved briskly ahead. Primary education became compulsory, and with the 1881 School Law, girls were assured access to secondary education. Moreover, Leopold’s policies provided greater protection for women and children than was then the norm in most of Europe. Thanks to legislation passed in 1889, children under twelve could not be put to work, and after they turned twelve their workdays were limited to twelve hours, a radical departure from prevailing policy of the time [..].

But then there was the Congo.

Though he never set foot in Africa, Leopold also ruled over the Congo Free State for nearly a quarter of a century (1885-1908). He built his personal wealth in the Congo first by extracting high-priced ivory from the region and then by exploiting the even more lucrative rubber trade that developed there. Unlike in Belgium, there was no chef de cabinet (roughly, prime minister), and no voters among the Congo’s approximately 30 million people to limit what he could do. Because it was his personal property, Leopold was free to exert the absolute rule he could not have at home [..].

Leopold’s “police” received low salaries but could earn big commissions by meeting or exceeding their rubber quotas. Unrestricted by any law governing their conduct except, literally, the law of the jungle, and provided with a huge financial incentive through the commission system, these soldiers of sorrow, from the very bottom of the ladder to the very top, used whatever means they saw fit to meet the quotas [..] Rewarded for killing people allegedly engaged in antigovernment activities and needing to account for every bullet they spent, soldiers quickly took to indiscriminate mutilation of innocent souls as a way to boost their counts and thereby their fees, going so far as to chop off the right hands of women and children to provide evidence of their work on behalf of Leopold’s interests. Perhaps as many as 10 million people were murdered at the hands of the Force Publique in their pursuit of wealth for Leopold and, of course, for themselves [..].

In contrast to Leopold’s progressive policies in Belgium, virtually nothing was invested in improving conditions in the Congo. Roads were built only where they helped move rubber to market. Laws protecting women and children or worker’s right to strike were unheard of. Much as Leopold worried about protecting the security of his Belgian subjects, he worked to undermine the security of his Congolese subjects [..].

How could King Leopold II have ruled two places at the same time in such dramatically different manners?

It’s easy to blame Leopold’s apparent split personality—a progressive in Belgium and a monster in the Congo—on some character flaw or on a diseased mind. It’s also easy to explain away his horrible rule in the Congo as typical racist behavior. These explanations feel good, but they almost certainly cannot describe the big picture. After all, just think about Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congo’s latter-day Leopold, the monster in a leopard-skin hat who ruled Zaire (largely what used to be the Congo Free State and is today the Democratic Republic of Congo) for more than thirty years (1965—97) [..].

It’s nice to think that leaders who provide peace and plenty rule for long, happy years, beloved by the people and content to do good for them day and night. But in fact those who want to run a country for a long time are ill advised to go around promoting peace and prosperity. Not that making people well off is inherently bad for leaders; it isn’t. It’s just that promoting corruption and misery is better. That was well understood by Leopold and Mobutu in the Congo, and is clearly understood today by the governments in places like North Korea, Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, Chad, Syria … sadly, the list goes on.

It so happens that leaders who are really good at giving their people life, liberty, and happiness are, overwhelmingly, democratically elected and therefore face organized political competition. It also so happens that they are routinely thrown out after only a short time in office.

[..] Leopold ruled Belgium for forty-four years, but he was a constitutional monarch who had to work within the constraints of the democratic system that governed Belgium if he was to remain in power [..].

It’s my claim, and it may seem controversial, that kleptocratic leaders are not inherently evil—at least not necessarily so—and that those who do a great job for their people in hopes of reelection are hardly fit for sainthood. They’re all doing the right things if they want to stay in power as long as possible. Leopold, despicable as he was, did what worked best for him in the politically unconstrained environment of the Congo, and he did what worked best for him in the constitutionally limiting environment of Belgium [..].

The difference between doing a good job and doing a lousy job is driven by how many people a leader has to keep happy. Why doesn’t every leader allow cronies to loot and steal the way the Force Publique did? Large-scale democratic leaders can’t—they have to reward too many people to make theft and corruption work for them. In other words, the system does not effectively incentivize that strategy. Virtually all long-lasting (read authoritarian) leaders, however, really depend only on a very small number of generals, senior civil servants, and their own families for support. Because they rely on so few people to keep them in power, they can afford to bribe them handsomely.