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February 14, 2008

The Iron Law Of Institutions, In Iranian History

Here's a section from Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski, via Eatbees. It's about the Shah's claim he was going to use oil wealth to modernize Iran and create a "Great Civilization":

From a logical point of view, anyone who sets out to create a Great Civilization ought to begin with people, with training cadres of experts in order to form a native intelligentsia. But it was precisely that kind of thinking that was unacceptable. Open new universities and polytechnics, every one a hornets’ nest, every student a rebel, a good-for-nothing, a freethinker? Is it any wonder the Shah didn’t want to braid the whip that would flay his own skin?

It's the Iran Law of Institutions! (Sorry.)

Eatbees argues the Shah's actions "backfired": "Modernization benefiting only the elite caused widespread resentment, leading directly to the Iranian Revolution." I'm not sure of this, however. The Shah may well have believed the "Great Civilization" project consolidated his power in the present, even if it undermined it several years down the road. From any leader's perspective, this is preferable to something that undermines your position immediately. Your choice is usually not between something that consolidates your power forever and something that does not. It's between something that helps your position in the short term, and something that undermines it in the short term.

This is why it's a mistake to think that leaders, particularly autocrats, ever have some sort of grand strategy. Generally their only strategy is "try not to get shot before dinner tonight."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at February 14, 2008 10:53 AM

Fair enough, but in some times and places, leaders figure out how to survive in both the short and long term. This strategy is sometimes referred to as "governing in the interests of the people."

On the other hand, a Moroccan friend once told me that no such thing exists. He claimed that "All governments are mafias" or coalitions of self-interest, only some mafias are more mature than others and better able to hide their true nature. Some have been around long enough to become "governing elites" and persuade the people that their interests are identical with the national interest.

That is our lot in the advanced democracies. Elections are a technique to allow the mafias to remain in place, while giving the people a periodic outlet for their frustrations and hopes. I think the Shah was too vain, too clumsy an autocrat to dissimulate in this way, which is why he fell.

Posted by: eatbees at February 14, 2008 01:53 PM

"The Iran Law of Institutions"? Jeez, you have to be in a pretty select group to get that joke!

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at February 14, 2008 02:17 PM

It's quite interesting to hear John Lennon talk about when he first met Paul McCartney. He had a choice to ask Paul to join the group and make the group stronger or not ask him and keep himself stronger within the group. I think he made the right decision.

Posted by: cemmcs at February 14, 2008 05:37 PM