An economist’s reluctant ponder on patriotism

19 Feb, 2021 - 15:02 0 Views
An economist’s reluctant ponder on patriotism

eBusiness Weekly

A colleague has been pestering me on how I would define and appraise patriotism as a mechanism for economic development.

I suspect some articles I have shared in these pages which are not so enthusiastic on import substitution have accentuated the pestering. She is a well-read professional so I suspect she is just sizing me up. Because she is such an informed person, I will present this article as an opening statement almost certain that this discussion will recur.

Patriotism is a sense of pride in belonging to a small patch of Earth. In itself, it has no direct economic value which makes it a difficult concept to study.

This may sound rather crude and final so I will tone it down a bit by referencing a conversation between George Akerlof and Karen Ongley at the IMF almost a decade ago.

Professor Akerlof is a well-renowned economist who received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001. I thought it fitting to reference his work upfront given that patriotism can be regarded, at least on the surface of it, as falling within the ambit of his work of Identity Economics.

The conversation I am citing is available online. In it, he explains how his work builds on the well-established thesis which posits that societies develop because of strengths of their institutions.

His contribution to this thesis, at least in the conversation, is firstly his emphasis on the obvious fact that society is made up of many institutions.

Secondly, it is the argument that the degree to which individuals’ ideals and aspirations filter through to the mandates of the institutions determine progress. In that regard, it is important for custodians of institutions, namely policymakers, to know individuals’ identities. But what does he mean by identity? He means each individuals’ ideals and aspirations.

Karen Ongley then asks him how leaders can get to know people’s identities. He replies: “We ask how people identify and that means who do people think they want to be.

Once you know who somebody wants to be, you know what their motivations are because there is an ideal on how [they] should behave. My own ideal is: I’m an economist and I would like to be like my thesis supervisor who is Robert Solow.

Once you know what somebody’s ideal is, that tells you who they want to be, and once you know who they want to be then it tells you what they want to do, and when you know what they want to do then you know what their motivation is.”

Sounds pretty standard because organisations do this all the time when they write and rewrite mission statements and goals. At national level, determining people’s identity is complicated: can there ever be a unitary “Zimbabwe we want” or a unitary “Africa we want” there being so many of us with possibly different identities as defined by the Professor?

It is on this complicated reality that leaders rouse the good-old feelings of belongingness – nationalism or patriotism – to cement society. But it is important to appreciate the essence of a patriot as originally conceived: a patriot is he who is the “defender of the lands of our fathers” – we had very patriarchal societies in those ancient times where service was to monarchs and all things, people included, belonged to monarchs.

Since then, many flags have been pegged on patches of Earth marking territories to be defended by patriots from other patriots. I am straying a bit here.

The point to underscore is that nationality (hence being a possible patriot) is attributed or inherited while Identity, per the economist, is self-defined.

Last week I shared a piece which mentioned that of 450 scientists who have been working on the Mars Mission, about 200 were Emiratis yet it was the UAE flag that flew high.

Interestingly, Emiratis constitute about 14 percent of the country’s population of about 10 million. This is similar to parachuting 90 million expatriates into Zimbabwe! Why would a country let its citizens to be so outnumbered instead of defending it from intruders?

Countries and societies do so to attract human and financial capital so as to leapfrog others by being more efficient in producing goods and services.

If they do this well, it boosts economic growth, improves exports, stabilises local currency and delivers longer and healthier lives for natives such that the country enters a more efficient frontier of patriotism whose defining trait is competitiveness and efficiency.

I close this opening statement with a question: should we define identity with reference to individual ideals or should we define identity as a hovering heritage?

She basically wants me to answer that question but I will insist that what matters more than either-or answers is the discipline in society to recognise the difference between the two and for leadership to manage the differences to symbiotically boost each version of identity.

Alfred M. Mthimkhulu
Email: [email protected]Twitter: @mthimz

Share This:

Sponsored Links