Thinking About Thinking

The Rule of Law and the Global Poor

Posted in Philosophy by larrycheng on April 15, 2012

This weekend, I learned something fundamental and important about the plight of the global poor.  I learned that for most of the global poor, they live in a world without the rule of law.  What this means, quite simply, is that they live in a world where crimes committed against them go systematically unpunished.  In fact, because their status in society is so low, crimes committed against the poor may not even be considered crimes at all, despite their patent illegality.  Even worse, it is not uncommon for crimes to be committed against them by the very institutions we would expect to protect them –  law enforcement.

In a world of lawless lack of accountability, the primary weapon of intimidation and subjugation against the weakest of society is the oldest tool in the book: violence.  This leads to a tragic reality that the global poor are inordinately subjected to crimes of severe violence.

Imagine living in a world where you could permanently lose your home or farm because someone just decides to take it – by showing up at your front door, physically beating you, threatening your family at gunpoint, and forcing you out.  This act alone means you lose your income and shelter and your children become at serious risk of starvation.  And, you can do nothing about it.  Imagine living in a world where your child can be tricked and taken from you and trafficked into commercial sex trade.  You live with the knowledge that every day your child is violently coerced into repeatedly performing sex acts for customers in some far away brothel.  And, you can do nothing about it.  Imagine living in a world where you could be framed for crimes you did not commit and further be sentenced to death because you wouldn’t pay a bribe to the police.  You live in terror on death row as other innocent prisoners around you commit suicide having given up all hope.  And, you can do nothing about it.

Sadly, this is not an imaginary world for the global poor –  it is the stark reality of living in a world where the rule of law is absent.  This injustice is common and pervasive.  This weekend I was fortunate enough to meet with the global area directors from an organization that is enabling the poor to have a voice and to do something about it –  International Justice Mission (IJM).  IJM is an organization of lawyers and social workers doing good –  but the evil they face every day is profound.  The scenarios I described are the all-too-common real-life stories of people in places like Rwanda, Guatemala, Bolivia, India, The Philippines, Cambodia, and many others.  It is the reality for the global poor.

The impact of not having a functioning and honest criminal justice system has implications that extend well beyond the individual.  As Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros write in a Foreign Affairs article, And Justice for All, “The absence of functioning public justice systems for the poor jeopardizes half a century of development work, because there is no effective mechanism to prevent those in power from taking away and blocking access to the goods and services the development community is providing.”  The well-meaning efforts to provide the poor with sustenance, property, employment, skills, education, and healthcare, in some sense, rely on a fundamental assumption that is not true for most of the global poor –  that they have rights and those rights are enforced.  As Haugen and Boutros point out starkly, “Farming tools are of no use to widows whose land has been stolen.”

The absence of the rule of law perpetuates the cycle of poverty and injustice at the societal level.  If you want to help take a community, region, or country out of poverty –  one of the fundamental building blocks has to be the just rule of law.  As David Brooks wrote this week in a NY Times article, “You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to that much.”  Unfortunately, the ruling class is predatory in much of the developing world.

The global poor live in a different world than we live in.  It is incredibly hard for us to imagine their real circumstance.  Our images of poverty are often associated with the absence of more tangible items of food, shelter, clothing and healthcare.  But, it is in fact the absence of that which is least tangible, the rule of law, which may ultimately be the most defining variable for the present and future plight of the global poor.

12 Responses

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  1. Kostis Mamassis said, on April 15, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Interesting article. David Landes, in the “Wealth and Poverty of Nations”, wrote: “the ideal growth-and-development” government would a)secure rights of private property; b) secure rights of personal liberty; c) enforce rights of contract; and d) provide stability and fairness in an efficient, moderate fashion.

    • larrycheng said, on April 15, 2012 at 8:22 pm

      Kostis – thanks for sharing that. Landes’ points make a ton of sense to me after the accounts I heard this weekend.

  2. Desmond Gorven said, on April 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    There is a better way to have social order: the better way is to abandon our failed system of democracy, and accept that individuals must make their own arrangements for security. We have to see the obvious truth that squeezing tax money from people on a non-contractual, extortionate basis, is a social ill, as is the imposition of regulations upon non-consenting adults. In addition, we use muddled thinking about rights. The best argument in favour of any “right” is an argument of the form that the other had “no right”. It is a mere feature of lazy thinking that we jump from successful agumentation of “have no right”, to the unsupported conclusion that there are instances of “have a right”.

  3. Desmond Gorven said, on April 15, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    I can explain more, another day.

    • larrycheng said, on April 15, 2012 at 8:25 pm

      Desmond, I’m not sure I completely “get” your broader point. But, in the Foreign Affairs article I referenced in the blog post, it does talk about the tell tale sign of the lack of rule of law is the substantial growth of the private security industry in these regions of the world. The net of it is if the upper class in a society generally have private security, you can bet it’s for good reason – and one of those reasons is they don’t trust the police to protect them.

  4. Desmond Gorven said, on April 15, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    I read Dr Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s explanation, which is more or less: There are territorial monopolies on raising taxes. Publically funded police need crime to continue at a level which reminds scares the public into supporting police funding increases. The absence of competitors motivates police to misdirect their efforts into victimless crimes, and whatever will please their paymaster, rather than focus on the need of the public.
    The absence of territorial monopoly government will mean that individuals will subscribe to security services, and perceived lack of service will be punished by subscribers.
    The poor do make arrangements for security. They live close to each other, allowing too little room for agriculture, because the distance created by a field of crops creates risk.
    The poor also buy unlicenced weapons, presumably primarily for defence.
    The monopoly service-provider police count it as a victory when they take away the weapons held by the poor.
    The police can be selective about which cases to investigate.
    Police in Johannesburg routinely extort bribes from foreign poor who have not bribed someone to supply genuine asylum-seeker permits. i hear they refer to them as ATMs, because they can make a cash withdrawal from any one.
    I know someone who lives that life of “asylum-seeker” in Johannesburg. His former employer was of course contributing tax to fund the police to drive around preying on their employee. Would employers do that by choice?
    I am pretty sure that an anarchic world will have employers contribute to the security of their employees.
    Dr Hans-Hermann Hoppe has predicted some of the likely features of the coming social order [that is, he describes features, I predict that anarchy will eventually dawn]
    In Johannesburg, police conduct operations to clear traders off pavements.
    We have this “wonderful” constitutional democracy here. It is broken. It will never be fixed. One day, in the distant future, we will abandon it.

  5. Brendan said, on April 15, 2012 at 10:42 pm

    Thanks for the post. Fukuyama’s recent “The Origins of Political Order” covers this point in some depth; I highly recommend it. This is also a strong argument to tamper the exceeingly bullish assumptions about China’s continued growth and influence.

  6. Daniel said, on May 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Reblogged this on HireAHelper's Everything Home Blog and commented:
    Larry Cheng shared some incredible insight he gained after speaking with some directors at International Justice Mission (IJM). His post gives an excellent look at why we at HireAHelper find it so important, when browsing through the list of non-profits to support, to get behind what IJM is doing.

  7. Desmond Gorven said, on May 12, 2012 at 4:42 am

    In the presence of territorial monopoly governments, law cannot rule. The (if lucky, popular) government arrogates to itself a right to make legislation which overrides the interests of justice.

    Note that the first amendment to the U.S. constitution is a prohibition on passing certain laws.

    Viewed clearly, democracy has evolved into a renunciation of majoritarianism (the first amendment implies the majority may be crazy). However, we have the opportunity to use elements of design, as well as processes of evolution, in achieving a social order in which we can take pride.

    Please ponder this: “We hold it to be self-evident”
    Nice rhetoric. Even if the rhetoricist held it to be self-evident that every surface which is red all over, is simultaneously green all over, I cannot disprove that he holds it to be so.

    In 2012, we can certainly come up with a less shaky foundation for social order.

    A Private Law Society, as proposed by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, has a solid foundation, and will most likely replace democracy in the long run.

    So why waste energy on an obsolescent system?

  8. […] Larry Cheng shared some incredible insight he gained after speaking with some directors at International Justice Mission (IJM). His post gives an excellent look at why we at HireAHelper find it so important, when browsing through the list of non-profits to support, to get behind what IJM is doing. So we decided to reblog it here. Check-out the full content on his blog. This weekend, I learned something fundamental and important about the plight of the global poor. I learned that for most of the global poor, they live in a world without the rule of law. What this means, quite simply, is that they live in a world where crimes committed against them go systematically unpunished. In fact, because their status in society is so low, crimes committed against the poor may not even be considered crimes at all, despite their patent illegality. Even worse, it is not uncommon for crimes to be committed against them by the very institutions we would expect to protect them – law enforcement (read more…) Share this:FacebookTwitterMorePinterestRedditStumbleUponDiggEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  9. […] from further victimization.  After visiting with IJM leadership, I wrote a blog post called “The Rule of Law and the Global Poor” which captures the problem and their work in greater detail.  I have become a big believer […]

  10. Ahmed Fasih said, on December 19, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    It turns out that your paragraph starting with, “Imagine living in a world…” is a good summary of human history, as celebrated in literature and confirmed by archaeology. The Iliad to Tain Bo Cuailnge, Beowulf to today, so much raiding and piracy and slavery condoned and expected by all.


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