Moralistic Blockaders versus Subversive Altruists

Carol and I have been watching political candidates advertise their wares on TV. The Brazilian election is just around the corner and as I mentioned before, it’s not looking promising. Things are good economically, so there’s little incentive for reform.

I am reluctant to venture the opinion that someone “looks” corrupt – as the adage goes: looks often deceive – but it’s hard not to infer from the slick manner and silky words of some candidates that they’re in the game for more than just helping their country get ahead. Don’t get me wrong, the U.S. , Canada and other more advanced countries also have slippery characters in politics.

Latin American countries, however, understandably tend to attract a good deal more populist charlatans; for one, when your median citizen has five years of schooling it’s easier to sell them on building or giving away things than how you’re going to use the trade surplus to lower the national debt and thereby decrease income taxes (that much of the lower classes don’t pay).

The central dilemma is how to attract good, capable people into less than good, frequently corrupt politics. Most people in Brazil are as upstanding as anywhere else, but the challenge is getting these people to become politicians, which they view to be irredeemably corrupt. These are the moralistic blockaders, who choose to avoid entering a sector, industry, or profession because they do not share its value system.

The paradox is that the blockade mentality perpetuates the problematic nature of some occupations: politicians remain corrupt, real-estate developers often privilege profit over good construction, and natural resource extractors have earned a reputation for a quick- exit approach, spoiling the environment. These occupations would surely do better for the world and themselves if self-identified altruists got involved in them, and indeed sometimes they do. Subversive altruists better the bad, while blockaders berate the bad with criticism. Subversive altruists are the real heroes, are they not?

Subversive altruists often tend to be spoilers. I think of people who went into politics and, partly through high-minded leadership, brought down corrupt and inefficient systems. Two come to mind immediately: Gorbachev in the USSR, President Ernesto Zedillo in Mexico (1995-2001). We’ll save the biographies for another time…The most salient challenge is making sure that altruists themselves do not become subverted by these unsavory occupations, à la power corrupts…

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