skip to content
Friday, 1 December 2023

Dr John Barker is a Fellow of the Lauterpacht Centre and recently retired as Chairman of the Foreign Compensation Commission, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.





The Emperor’s Clothes 

When I was in primary school, I found it inconceivable that the story of the Emperor’s new clothes could be true. And yet here we are, confronted by the lethal fact that deceit and delusional thinking in public life and in commerce have been mainstreamed.

Lord Rees, whose book Our Final Century chronicles a range of risks facing humanity, asks whether we will make it to the next century. Two decades on, as predicted, humanity is now in the kind of tailspin where no one knows whether we have reached a point of no return. It is therefore difficult not to jump from denial to resignation, missing that critical middle ground when there might be time and agency to change course. 

The common underlying cause of virtually all largescale global threats is dangerously suboptimal human decision-making riddled with conflicts of interest and perverse incentives. How, then, are leaders and citizens to escape the bonds of delusional thinking and of deceitful conduct? We are not lacking in clues but we do seem to be lacking tools. Including tools that help us to recognise the elements of fiduciary obligation and understand the true consequences of poor choices in every branch, sector and level of public decision-making.

A case in point. In June 2023, for the first time in the country’s history, the President of Malawi, Chief Justice and the Speaker of the House convened a two-day national conference on the separation of powers. This created a forum that enabled representatives of the different branches of government to air their concerns about encroachments violating separation of powers principles. It was a courageous initiative to tackle one of the operative causes of misunderstanding, mistrust and friction. 

The challenge was for the branches of government to align their efforts behind national objectives and provide essential checks and balances while staying in their lane. It is not an easy balancing act, calling for forms of restraint informed by a higher purpose and a deeper understanding of one another’s roles. 

Giving the keynote address to help set the stage provided an opportunity for me to look back over the nation’s post-independence history. I had been privileged to witness some of the most dramatic moments in a tumultuous period that spanned dictatorship, transition to multiparty democracy and the efforts to consolidate democracy in the face of overpowering forces forging a corrosive fusing of wealth capture and state capture. The excess concentration of power and wealth predictably led to unwarranted, arbitrary brutality. Such painful lessons from the past as well as some notable triumphs provide important signposts to the way forward.

One of the more significant signposts was that the challenge leading to the ending of dictatorship came not only from the churches, representing the moral voice of society, but from the Chamber of Commerce, representing the business community. The dictatorship had stifled business opportunities though interference and commercially irrational decisions that suppressed opportunities and caused the economy to falter. As a result of missed opportunities, Malawi was one of the poorest countries in the world, with infant and maternal mortality rates hovering at stratospheric levels. 

It is important for societies to appreciate that they have agency to make important self-organising choices that determine their position and direction of travel on a socioeconomic spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are societies that strive to be humane and productive. Their economies are inclusive. Households are viable. Public institutions are responsive to the needs of citizens, investment in service delivery in health and education is strong, the rule of law is respected, there are safeguards against predatory behaviour and there is a prevailing sense of fairness in society that gives citizens a sense of hope.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, oppression is the organising principle of the society with citizens coerced and all too often butchered into submission. There is a heavy reliance on fear and deceit to hide the systematic kleptocratic management of the economy. In this legal twilight zone, there is no separation of powers, human rights, rule of law or public accountability. 

Moreover, delusional decision-making, untethered from a more objective, process-based evidence base, is the predictable consequence of regimes that practice deceit to stay in power. As Francis Bacon observed, “truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.” And so, it is especially important that we curate and expand our knowledge base, and keep public policy firmly tethered to it. As with deceit in commerce, deceit in public life is unsustainable. It may provide high returns to a few initially, but can only lead to acute human suffering as political, economic and ecological systems collapse. 

Strengthening democratic institutions such as separation of powers and rule of law will ensure that public policy aligns with the long-term interest of citizens. Where countries are situated on the spectrum between the two extremes is a product of their circumstances and history. But their direction of travel along that spectrum will be determined by day-to-day decisions that strengthen or weaken these institutions. 

The link between humane systems that promote human well-being and economic productivity is intuitively logical and well established on the micro level. Perhaps human capital accounting will help to demonstrate this on the macro level because begging dictators to play nice has no leverage. Only by showing a clear link between democratic values and economic muscle is it possible to push back hard against the fraudulent claim that concentrated authority serves the interests of citizens. 

Watching loyal followers and purchased enablers fawn over the powers that emperors clothe themselves in takes me right back. It is encouraging to see Malawi resisting the temptation.

This article first appeared in Lauterpacht Centre News (LCN) - November 2023