Perhaps because I’m kind, or perhaps because the term the “developing world” is so misleading, I used to imagine a fine day in the future when countries like Lebanon or Brazil may finally catch up. Why not?

Well, once I was young and now am old, and no longer do I believe that anybody could ever catch up. The abyss is deep and the pit is dark. Once you’re thrown out of the ranks of the first world, there’s no coming back. Unless perhaps you are China. But I’ll get to that.

As I have written before, the maintenance of an advanced society is not a trivial thing. Despite misleading notions, it’s not really about inventing flashy new things. How many of today’s key technologies were invented in Switzerland or in the Netherlands? Airplanes, computers, televisions, and cellphones were all invented elsewhere. Yet both Switzerland and the Netherlands are highly well-organized societies where one can drink the water.

So what does it take to run an advanced society? Clearly, as a first ingredient, it takes a certain level of social stability or trust. When I deposit my money at the bank I need to trust it’s not going to be stolen; when I go under at the hospital, I need to trust that my organs will not be harvested; when I buy a used car I need to trust it’s not a clunker with a pirated engine.

So let’s call that high social trust.

Also, we need a society where people follow the rules. An advanced economy is immensely complex. We need people that return the cart when they’re done shopping, rewind the VHS when they’re done watching a movie, and in general, people that do their jobs. When people SAY they are fixing a water pipe, we need them to actually do it; when people SAY they are not adding an unlawful garage to their property, we need them actually follow the rules; when people have taxes to pay, we need them to pay them.

And then naturally you also need a society of relatively high IQ. No high IQ, no ecosystem of knowledge jobs, no well-managed firms, no effective militaries, etc. The internet is filled with research about the national criticality of high intelligence, so I’m not going to expand much here (go on or something).

So let’s call these factors social trust, rule-following, and competence.

And now let’s think about Brazil. Can Brazil, a third-world country of slums, twerking hordes, and gated communities, ever make it to first-world status? The answer is probably not. The slums and gated communities clearly speak for themselves – social trust in Brazil is low. Crime is high, so rule-following is also low. Also, if you’ve met any Brazilians, their fun-loving relaxed culture is quite the opposite of rule-following. Nice for smoking a joint, not so nice for maintaining proper urban plumbing.

And also, given that no Brazilian university scores in the Shanghai 100 index of top universities, we may surmise that this South African giant is not quite the intellectual powerhouse.


Brazil, like Argentina, was a relatively functioning place when the demands of a modern economy were humbler, and limited to the ability to export bananas. Brazil’s political instability can be seen as the inability to accept its fate, trying to defy it seasonally with coups and revolutions, but to no avail.

Garbage has its own gravitational force, and beyond a certain mass of low trust, low rule-following, and low IQ, all is lost. Brazil’s universities are not going to become suddenly terrific; Brazil’s water infrastructure is not going to become functional; Brazil’s citizens are not going to return the cart at the supermarket.

Think about it as the Mr. Darcy rule of political economy – a good society once lost, is lost forever.

But then, what about China? 50 years ago China too did not have potable water or an advanced economy. If China made it, why can’t Egypt or Brazil make it too?

Well, China does not suffer from a low national IQ. But more importantly, China bypassed the low-trust and low-rule-following barriers by… applying force. Terrible force. China has subdued its population through a series of mass deaths almost unheard of in human history. China’s famine of the late 50s had killed about 50 million Chinese. Then the Cultural Revolution tortured millions and executed 1.5 million more. And then China instituted a police state of draconian discipline that is still hyperactive today.

So China is a special case. Brazil and Egypt can try perhaps a similar level of decades-long cruelty, but without the high IQ, the results are likely to disappoint (think Saddam’s Iraq or Assad’s Syria).

Heed then the imperious Mr. Darcy. Conserve your advanced societies. A good society once lost, is lost forever.

Brazil: Land of the future: Zweig, Stefan: Books
Any day now!