The Validity of Comparing Governments
Vast land distances and even greater philosophical differences separate Great Britain and the Democratic Republic of Congo. One a heavily bureaucratic system with a legal-rational basis of authority, the other a corrupt, patrimonial system that falls within a traditional framework of authority it would seem that the governments of these two nations would have very little in common. While this may be superficially true in many instances, a lack of directly similar features does not preclude drawing conclusions about each system through the use of a track of governmental evolution and making analytical comparisons.
Written laws are held as supreme in a legal-rational system, unlike in a traditional system where unpredictable personal relationships and loyalties form the foundation of government. In addition, the offices created under a legal-rational system, from that of the president to that of the lowest civil servant, are not owned by the officeholders as is often the case in a traditional system. These characteristics of legal-rational systems prevent the development of the excessive corruption that mars other traditional, patrimonial systems. Therefore, the ideal legal-rational system of government Weber describes, through its strict adherence to law and its separation of offices and officeholders, is the most stable and efficient type of administration. As investors trust in nations with reliable systems, countries with legal-rational, bureaucratic governments can grow and prosper because of their system's inherent predictability. Thus, a nation's ability to succeed to the utmost of its capacity likely depends on its ability to create and maintain a legal-rational system of government and, arguably, the development of this system is the ultimate goal in the evolution of government.
If legal-rational authority is the goal of governmental evolution, then
it follows that governmental evolution must be a one-dimensional trajectory
leading to this final, ideal point. Other forms of authority would fall
somewhere further down this line. Theoretically, traditional government
would be at the opposite end of the spectrum from legal-rational government,
as the two types of authority are based on completely different principles.
As for charismatic governments, Weber states that they generally do not
last long; in fact, in their pure form, they only exist in the process
of origination. After a charismatic authority is established, it becomes
routinized in order to gain permanence and stability. It metamorphoses
from a charismatic authority into a traditional or legal-rational one.
Therefore, charismatic governments can generally be placed in one of these
two other categories for the purpose of this idea of governmental evolution.
Consequently, a depiction of governmental evolution would place ideal
traditional authority at one end of a flat scale and ideal legal-rational
at the other, and various world governments could be placed in between,
closer to one end or the other depending on how relatively traditional
or legal-rational they are. While it may be possible through the process
of revolution or colonialism for a system to move backward on the trajectory,
the movement of most governments would be toward the stable, efficient
What distinguishes a legal-rational system from a traditional system
is the extent to which constants of politics-such as the quest for political
power and the doling out of civil service positions-are controlled and
regulated by law as opposed to tradition. Laws are social norms, which
are shared rules and guidelines that allow for predictable behavior, that
have been enacted and are enforced by the government. Legal-rational systems
are based on a belief in the legality of these patterns of norms. The
British government demonstrates the legal-rational method for handling
political processes. Politics in such a legal-rational system are more
impersonal and rule-based than in an organic traditional system, which
is based on the principle that the system functions in a certain way because
it is "the way things have always been." Traditions, not laws,
are sacrosanct in these systems that claim legitimacy through the exercise
of the society's customs. The Congolese government exemplifies this traditional,
patrimonial system of politics.
The quest for political power is defined as the seeking of high-placed, influential government offices, such as a seat in the legislative assembly or the executive office, and it includes the quest to lead the nation. To achieve political power in Great Britain, a person must go through the electoral system, a set of established legal-rational rules for choosing the country's leaders. As a representative democracy, Britain utilizes elections, which are regulated by the country's constitution. For example, national elections must be held at least every five years, the exact date dependent on when the current prime minister recommends the dissolution of Parliament to the monarch. A person seeking political office in Britain usually must be a citizen age 21 or older and must garner a plurality of votes, as the country has a "first-past-the-post" electoral system. Once in office, a politician can hold that office legally until the next election, after which, if the politician is not re-elected, he or she must give up the office in favor of the newly elected leader.
Post-independence Congo, on the other hand, has no formal, impartial procedure for gaining political power. In this patrimonial system, gaining power involves demonstrating loyalty to the patron and the even more uncertain element of the patron's whims. The position of prime minister under Mobutu, for example, was simply given to the president's current favorite among his inner circle, and the position was just as easily taken away when that person fell out of favor or tried to grab too much power. As Michela Wrong points out in her examination of the country, "Between 1965 and 1990, when the one-party system came to an end, Zaire saw fifty-one government teams come and go, an average of two a year." In addition to the patrimonial elements inherent in seeking the position of prime minister, tradition plays a role in determining the country's chief leader, the president. Post-independence presidents have not come to power through elections or by following established procedures. Mobutu and Laurent Kabila seized power through military coups, and current president Joseph Kabila was appointed by his father's cabinet ministers when the elder Kabila was assassinated. Mobutu held onto power for more than thirty years, even after the establishment of the multiparty system, as there is no tradition of passing on power in Congo. Mobutu stayed in power because, for many Congolese, he always had been in power within their lifetimes.
However, it is not impossible to conceive of Congo's system evolving into something more legal-rational in this area. While past attempts at moving to a system of elections, such as during the multiparty system of the 1990s and after the 1997 rebel takeover, have failed, the trend of trying to institute legal-rational methods of handing over power continues. Currently, the Kinshasa government and several rebel factions are holding peace talks in Sun City, South Africa, during which they hope to create a transitional government to oversee democratic elections.
Another element of political systems that is found in both legal-rational and traditional systems is the civil service. The method of giving out and the meaning of bureaucratic positions may differ in these two systems, but the civil service is an essential part of both. In Britain, governmental departments create specific positions with fixed salaries to be filled by civil servants. The civil service is independent of the partisan aspects of politics, as civil servants compete for their positions not through loyalty or influence but through examinations and appearances before selection boards. Civil servants thus play a unique role in Britain's bureaucratic system: "Civil servants are permanent public officials, and as such required to be nonpartisan in the performance of their duties. They remain in post regardless of the outcome of general elections. They answer to ministers as ministers and not to ministers as party politicians."
The civil service is more of a political tool in Congo's patrimonial system. Each of Congo's many prime ministers created and doled out many civil service positions to friends, family and other members of their tribes. The bureaucracy bulged with public servants, most of whom had little to do and often never received their salaries anyway. The problem, as Wrong demonstrates when describing Kinshasa's airport, is that old civil servants remain even when new civil servants are hired. This state of affairs leads to situations such as that at the Ndjili airport, where passengers must pass through multiple security checkpoints between disembarking from their plane and leaving the airport, all so that each official may have a share in the money all passengers must have ready to pay out if they want to leave peacefully. As the Congolese culture encourages fending for oneself, even attempts at cutting away civil service jobs fail when officials all gradually work their way back in to secure more bribes for themselves.
But again, the two systems are not entirely dissimilar. While the British civil service system is ostensibly based on merit, those who actually secure civil service jobs are a relatively homogenous group. The government tends to favor hiring graduates of the exclusive public schools and Oxbridge universities, and among these people, they lean toward those with a general background in the arts and humanities over the sciences. This educational background, which does in fact give these candidates merit, also places the candidates hired as civil servants among the upper classes of British society, like many politicians. The government is making efforts to diversify its service, but for now it remains a group of very similar individuals. In this respect, it is similar to the system of the Congo, in which each new batch of appointees tends to come from the same background as well, the tribe of the current prime minister.
The governments of Great Britain and Congo may be at different ends of the legal-rational-traditional spectrum, but that fact does not make comparison between them impossible. While they are different in many ways, when examined critically the two systems appear to share many traits, both historically and currently. Because comparisons can therefore be drawn between legal-rational Britain and traditional Congo, there is hope that Congo's government may be able to achieve the reforms it has sought and still seeks and then move toward having a legal-rational system. The case of these two countries is only one example of the possibility of comparing apparently dissimilar systems and learning more about each system in the process. All governments can be best understood in relative, comparative terms.
Copyright © 2002 Colleen Fischer | Last updated October 7, 2002