Pushing the envelope of knowledge – commercial civilization – Part 20 of 20
On 1 November 2009, I began this series of 20 articles with the hope to provoke thought about what Africans can do to enhance their stock of social, political and economic but also moral capital.
This being the last installment, I could not think of any better subject to complete the conversation than deal with the complex issue of commercial civilization and its relevance to Africa’s uncertain future.
Any progressive modern civilization has to be based on laws underpinned by an institutional framework that allows individuals a large measure of freedom to seek profit through voluntary and not state-assisted exchange.
When colonialism visited Africa, it must be accepted that the transactions that were prevalent were not done with any prospect of making profits.
However, in commercially oriented societies, many transactions would simply not occur without the prospect of making profits and we would find ourselves without the benefit of the goods and services that we take for granted.
In societies where arguments about the role of profits in the production of goods and services dominate conversations, it is not unusual to find that poverty is the order of the day.
Is it, therefore, not ironic that even in developed economies the notion of profiting from commercial dealings with other people seems fundamentally wrong to many people even when the profits are gained through the medium of perfectly legal transactions?
In the evolution of human commercial civilization, we find that even the ancient Greeks frowned upon the concept of profit making and had their own term for money making i.e. chrematistics.
It was Cicero who observed that those who buy from merchants in order to resell immediately make no profit "without much outright lying."
It has been observed that a market system works on the basis of the "greater fool principle" meaning that if there is no fool at the transaction point, then no voluntary exchange can be expected to take place.
Many religions do condemn usury and the origin of the concept of a "just price" was not invented by President Mugabe but by no other than Aristotle.
When I resigned from the World Bank/IFC in 1995 to commence my journey into business, I was acutely conscious that there exists a strong bias against commerce as evidenced by constant pressures even in democratic societies to restrain profit seeking and to redistribute wealth.
Such thinking, which is prevalent in post-colonial Africa, contains the unspoken assumption that business and entrepreneurship are necessary evils whose consequences need to be managed through state interventions.
My experience in doing business in Africa has informed me that even the most educated people can be financially and commercially illiterate which makes the job of piloting the African development agenda more complex in that the key decision makers in the continent lack the moral capital that is required to underpin sustainable commercial capital development.
Can commerce, a pre-requisite for human development and growth, be sustainable without moral capital? There is nothing inevitable in human affairs to the notion that markets and morals are not aspects of the spontaneous order of society.
A connection does exist between moral capital, commerce and economic performance and, if anything, this was the primary purpose of these 20 articles.
Economic historians will agree as Adam Smith and David Hume did, for example, that moral rules co-evolves with commerce and this symbiotic relationship leads not only to moral capital accumulation but to economic prosperity.
The depletion or absence of moral capital as is the case in many underdeveloped societies, can result in economic deterioration that in turn can erode the very moral capital that is required for progress.
In writing these articles, I was cognizant of the sense in which any disposition that we may have to moral conduct in itself represents a type of capital that is required as a foundation to development.
In post-colonial Africa, it is important that we interrogate the disposition to moral conduct that is held by the majority of the people as expressed by the worldview held by the political actors that preside over the affairs of the state.
What are then the main forms of morality? These include: moderation in action, thought or feeling, justice, and the actions that promote the wellbeing of others.
History and experience has taught us that justice has a special and foundational significance to the sustainable development of commerce. Justice is indispensable for commerce as are institutions that promote and protect it.
A supportive and enabling institutional framework promotes the accumulation of moral capital.
Is or should there be a connection between commerce and morals?
Moral capital development rules and commerce are essentially aspects of the same evolutionary phenomenon that would tend to dilute the notion, for example, that Africa can advance its cause without the input of other civilizations and cultures,
Commerce cannot exist in a vacuum rather it depends on the kind of moral capital that prevails.
A proposition that is widely held in post-colonial Africa that commerce necessarily promotes greed and hence devalues morality should be interrogated.
Post-colonial Africa needs both commerce and moral capital and to the extent that the state can be competent to discharge its obligations in the promotion and development of moral capital, it is important that African states are effective mainly in the promotion of justice.
We have seen the attempts by post-colonial African states to promote the well being of the governed result in the erosion of justice rather than its entrenchment.
Morality is a real and significant factor in the development of commerce. It not only enhances the security of person and property but also promotes the respect of the rule of law and the sanctity of contracts.
A political morality that seeks to protect person and property and that enforces contracts in necessary for nation building. In societies where public morality is against the promotion and protection of justice and equity, commercial development will be stunted.
Post-colonial Africa was founded from the womb of colonialism and yet the laws that relate to commerce rest on the morality of an unjust colonial order.
As we celebrate our heritage and more importantly as the world focuses on Africa at this defining moment when South Africa is hosting the world’s biggest soccer tournament, we can safely that African morality has evolved.
In the last 19 installments, I have attempted to define the construction of capital and identify the kind of social, political, and moral capital that is required in a progressive Africa with a view to pushing back the frontiers of the body of knowledge that informs many of the conversations that take place among us as Africans.
What will make Africa deliver on its promise? The political and economic morality that is required for progress has to be located in the individual and collective choices and actions about what is right and what is wrong. When I started writing about Africa’s commercial civilization, I was aware of the dangers of being misunderstood as an apologist of colonialists.
However, I have always held the view any attempt to ignore or overlook the intrusion for better or worse of other cultures in Africa will not only distort what contemporary Africa is but can seriously endanger our collective psyche on what needs to happen to reduce the frontiers of poverty and ignorance.
What then is the source of moral rules? Accumulated experience not reason has been recognized as the source of moral rules. It must be accepted even, for example, a brilliant lawyer who has not been exposed to complex cases will not be of value to a client exposed to a kind of injustice that requires experience to resolve.
In as much as human beings would like to control the future, we have to accept that as human beings irrespective of our social, economic or political standing we all have no foresight of the future and, therefore, as Hume argued reason alone could never give rise to any original idea.
We all share one thing about the future i.e. our universal and equal blindness to the future and nations are incapable of creating establishments that define and shape the future but the establishments are nothing but a consequence of human action.
Morality, therefore, can be seen to emerge spontaneously and unintentionally through experiences that have conferred advantages to each given society. In the case of South Africa, for example, morality has to be holistically defined to include the contribution of non-natives to its development and crystallization.
As we celebrate the successful hosting of the soccer tournament, we must not forget that without the contribution of people who may in life have stood for that which is evil, the reality of this experience that we are privileged to be part of as residents of the hosting country will be nothing but a dream.
We all have a lot to learn from our past. We have no choice but to invest in knowledge building. Knowledge should give us the power to know what has worked in favor of Africa and what we need to do to make Africa the kind of society that we want to live in and see.
My contribution has been in form of words and, therefore, I leave it to the reader to choose what to internalize and what to discard. What is important is that a conversation has started and its enduring legacy will be located in our individual and collective actions.