Human beings tend to be different, conditioned by varying social settings and differing lived experiences.
From a Marxist standpoint, the attitudes and actions of individuals are determined by the existing economic system and their place in the structure of production.
But there is also a great deal of human essence that cuts across economic systems, classes, and races. There are motivations and behavioral patterns that are attributable to the entirety of the human race.
There is of course the danger of essentialism in this assertion, but one can’t gainsay the reality of humanity that has historically been reflected in actions and deeds of societies and individuals all around the world.
There is, for example, scarcely any society or part of the world that has never experienced war and conflict in recorded history, or no nation and social group that has never been under autocratic rule.
The question of human nature and the innate characteristic of human beings has been the subject of philosophical inquiry; it has exercised the minds of seminal thinkers in human history.
Two broad conclusions are worth high- lighting. The first that sees human nature as inherently predisposed to do good because we are endowed with rational capability and can, unlike other beings, discern good from bad and do right instead of wrong.
This line of thinking dates back to Plato but was most popularized in modern times by philosopher Immanuel Kant. The counterargument sees human beings as fundamentally oriented to doing bad. We are at our very core selfish and greedy such that left to our devices and in the absence of any constraints, we can display the worst of our instincts. This position was articulated
most forcefully by Thomas Hobbes in explaining the origins of modern government. Like all other major debates, the truth about human nature most plausibly lies somewhere in the middle.
But even if we held that the essence of human beings is to do good, we would also have to concede that good intentions and noble acts, too, can produce disastrous outcomes.
Consider the fact that some individuals selflessly and out of good heartedness contribute to the foreign aid industry that has been quite notorious for perpetuating underdevelopment than it has improved the lives of the poorest of the world.
If there is something that history has made abundantly clear about human beings, it is that for good or bad, the motivations and actions of individuals and societies must be tamed or, at a minimum, regulated. T
he challenge in this regard has always been how to design governance regimes and institutional arrangements that at once assure social harmony and individual freedom.
The predominant solution to that end that has proved enduring has been a rule-based society where legal and constitutional provisions along with established norms and values undergird everyday political relations, social interactions, and economic transactions. Let me exit this somewhat abstruse excurse.
Here is the crux of the matter, making possible social existence and progressive societies requires that all beings are subjected to constraints against their instincts and desires.
This is the essence of government. But putting in place a government that constrains everybody is the biggest challenge of all time. One of America’s foremost statesmen, James Madison, laid down this conundrum in the Federalist 51: the government must be powerful enough to govern but the governed should in turn control the government.
The real crisis facing a country like Uganda is the failure to develop a system of government that subjects everyone to the same rules of engagement.
A rules-based system means actions that don’t conform to the rules are sanctioned and those that adhere to the rules are rewarded. If this basic system of rewards and sanctions is disregarded, as is the case in Uganda today, a society descends into jungle life and lawlessness.
We see a great deal of this especially in the capital Kampala where even in the presence of traffic cops, motorists, more so passenger motorcyclists, can ride the red light at will. Government vehicles drive over shoulders without punishment.
By contrast, many hardworking public servants who stick to the rules and serve with distinction are sidelined and many retire to a pauper’s life. Being rewarded for excellence is not guaranteed because the system can be gamed such that one does not need to excel to be rewarded.
For those of us who believe that politics is a key determinant of other social and economic processes and outcomes in society, the structure of Ugandan politics today underpins much of what has gone wrong.
It all started in earnest in 1986. The new rulers proceeded by ruling without rules that bound everyone, both in terms of rewards and punishment.
When the rules caught some people on the wrong side, like the ruler’s brother, they were exempt. Others could effortlessly commandeer public assets and state enterprises to reward themselves for having fought.
This meant having different rules for different Ugandans.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.