02/28/2014 02:27 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

The Great Degeneration

Recently, during the awards ceremony of Limpiemos Nuestro México 2013 cleanup campaign, I commented on the importance of collaboration between civil society, government, and companies to resolve serious problems that affect us all. Awareness and action are key to achieving the cultural change that Mexico needs to embark on, because a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

In my blog entries, I have talked about some factors that underpin this change in mentality, such as institutions, education, economy and society.

In this regard, I recently had the opportunity to read The Great Degeneration. How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, a book written by the Scottish historian, Niall Ferguson. Based on the same arguments as Adam Smith (and others, such as David S. Landes, Paul Collier, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson), Ferguson outlines the factors that lead a country to stagnation.

Ferguson offers a provocative examination of the institutional decay that threatens the future of Western civilization. The symptoms of the decline are clear, and include crime, less economic growth, lower educational quality, crushing debt, poverty and rapidly aging populations, among others.

What went wrong? According to Ferguson, the institutions are degenerating.

Representative Government, Free Markets, the Rule of Law and Civil Society, are the four pillars that sustain the modern world. These institutions are the ones that placed the West on the road to prosperity and security. Nevertheless, in the past few years these same institutions have noticeably deteriorated. The same holds true for some Latin American countries that, in reality, have had little contact with prosperity and democratic stability.

The degradation of the democratic process has broken the pact between generations, by assigning increasing debt to our children and grandchildren, while the environment deteriorates.

The development of the markets has stalled and they are succumbing to excessive taxes and rules, while dysfunctional regulations have increased the system's fragility.

The Rule of Law has degenerated into the Empire of Lawyers. The revolutionary lawyers of the dynamic society of the past have become parasites of a stationary society.

Society has become centered in the cities, and in the cities, there is only effectiveness when good government is present.

Meanwhile, Civil Society has degenerated into Uncivil Society, in which we all expect that our problems will be resolved by the government. There is nothing more dangerous than maintaining this attitude! We cannot expect the government to resolve all that afflicts us, because this takes away our freedom.

Given this panorama, what is the main enemy of the law? Bad laws. In Mexico and most of Latin America, we have not been spared this reality.

Over the course of many years, rulers and legislators took on the task of limiting competition and innovation based on the argument of "protecting" the rights, integrity and safety of people. Yet, the consequences of these mainstays have been totally undesirable and are in plain view for all to see.

The adoption of laws that do not protect the legitimate interests of society gradually occurs when citizens are passive, ignorant of their reality, and only limit their participation to voting, for democracy is more than casting a ballot.

Education is also a valuable tool, but an investment that is at risk. The author argues that:

The problem is that public monopoly providers of education suffer from the same problems that afflict monopoly providers of anything: quality declines because of lack of competition and the creeping power of vested producer interests.

What is the solution? Break the monopoly on educational services, through a strategy that would erect a system of social participation and clear incentives based on results.

In these terms, the most valuable contribution of the book is its argument that society must establish ties, take action and become an agent of change. This applies to Latin America and the Hispanic population that lives in the United States.

Curiously enough, in the book, a case is mentioned that is very close to the author, in which a community of Wales organizes itself to clean beaches flooded with garbage in an initiative that is very similar to the Limpiemos Nuestro México campaign. After this experience, the author became convinced that the solution to our serious social problems is based on an organized civil society. The same idea occurred to me.

Institutions degenerate and countries decline when their economic and political backwardness and disparities hinder the welfare and prosperity of their people, when institutions become burdens, and authoritarianism stifles innovation and limits the freedom of individuals.

As Paul Collier reminds us, politicians will not adopt important transparent measures, only futile gestures, unless they are forced to do so by an informed and participatory society.

We are required to build an increasing number of partnerships between civil society, companies, and government to resolve increasingly complex problems. We must think and act, because our future depends on it.