Righteousness Exalts a Nation

Sam  Amadi

Today is Ramadan Kareem. Nigerian Muslims join millions of Muslims across the world to celebrate the birth of Prophet Mohammed. Last week was Easter. Nigerian Christians joined their fellows across the world to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Nigerian government typically declares public holidays to respect the religious sensibilities of its citizens who are adherents of the two historic religions. Many countries in the world will in diverse manners acknowledge the importance of these religious celebrations in, perhaps veiled, acknowledgement of the important of religion to national development.

This piece is inspired by these sacred and inspiring moments. The question is how much religion contributes to economic and social development. The point I want to argue is that the two aspects of religion that matter for development are belief and morality. Of the three major religions in the world, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, two are dominant in Nigeria. All these religions are called ‘Abrahamic Faith’ because they all trace their origins from Abraham. The Christians are followers of Jesus Christ, who is a son of Abraham. Muslims are followers of Prophet Mohammed who is traced to Ismeal, while Jews are descendants of Abraham through Isaac. One can argue that the 10 Commandant or a variant of its define the three religions. These are moral codes that stipulate the right social morality for the society.

A moral code, like the ones articulated by both the Old Testament and the Koran, shapes how people behave and underlines both the purpose and character of social institutions that define economic and social transactions. These moral codes are part of institutions. As Professor Douglas North puts it, institutions are humanly designed constrains to human activities. They could be both formal and informal. Informal institutions include religious beliefs and practices. Those practices can determine how the society manage the various opportunities and constraints it faces. The real effect of these moral codes is to establish a righteous society, a society that embodies what Aristotle called the virtues. He identified 12 such virtues that define a good society. They include courage, temperance, magnanimity and friendship. 

The title of this essay is ‘Righteousness Exalts a Nation”. This is taken from a passage in  Proverb, a book in the Old Testament. A subtitle could have been ‘Examining the theological insights in the political economy of development’. The question is whether we can construct an explanation about the success and failure of nations from their religious character. Many scholars have inquired into the cause of the success and failure of nations. Some trace it to geography. The argument is that somehow the people in particular geography of the world lack development because of the effect of geography. Jeffery Sachs is famous for offering this explanation for the lack of development in Africa and the rest of the left-behind continents. There has also been arguments about the negative effect of resources. Countries who have the misfortune of being abundant in natural resources at some point in their history are doomed to be poor as the effect of ‘Dutch Disease’ undermines the development of inclusive institutions.

But the examples of Norway and other resource-endowed countries in the west negates the resources argument. Being rich in natural resources does not predispose to poverty. It actually offers an opportunity to match towards wealth creation. The more persuasive insights arising from the work that institutional economists have done is to locate the divergent outcomes of resource endowment in Nigeria and Norway is the quality of institutions that moderate the use or misuse of resources. Those countries that have evolved differently from extractive institutions to inclusive productive institutions are unaffected by the resources curse. I argue that one of the major causes of this divergent evolution is the nature of religious sentiments and practices in the countries.

Nigeria is rated one of the most religious countries in the world. Many see this as a spur to development while others consider it a constraint. Those who consider religiosity as a constraint to development contrasts the fortunes of countries that are decidedly religious with those that are considered secular. But that analysis obscures one important point about religion and development. The heart of religion’s positive contribution to development does not lie in piety alone but mostly on institutionalized practices and norms. In that sense, it may be that some of the advanced economies have abandoned many of the religious rituals but have retained institutions fashioned after religious ideas and norms.

The argument of the pro-religion about the importance of religion to economic and social development is that whereas the developed American and European countries may today be described as ‘post-Christian’, the institutions that underwrite their economic and social transformations are defined in the image of the Judeo-Christian morality. This is not a new sentiment. The venerable Max Weber argued that the spirit of capitalism in the west was the protestant ethics. There have been critiques of this assertion. But no one seriously doubts how the Calvinist ideology impacted on the poverty and wealth of capitalist west.

It is noteworthy that Max Weber placed the cause of the prosperity of western society not on religious piety, but on ethics. It is the protestant ethics that made the difference. This is worthy further examination as we go through the rituals and performance of the Ramadan as we did for Easter. What religious ethics are influencing public conduct? How does religious sentiment operate in the public sphere to constrain or enable public action?

Many Nigerian lament the immorality that plague the Nigerian state in spite of highly and increasing levels of religious expression. Once Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe once lamented that Nigeria was the most religious as well as the most corrupt country in the world and the most corrupt. Maduekwe could not reconcile the two firsts. Should religious result in righteousness and not corruption? The problem is that we embraced the performative and not the morality of religion. The first and only black Nobel Laurate in economics, Arthur W. Lewis, argued in the 1960s that the religious outlook of a people measured in their beliefs and social norms contribute to the prosperity and wealth.

Nigeria’s problem is that its religiousness has not result in some necessary institutions that contribute to transformation. It is now time to translate piety to social practice through basic elements that made the difference in Europe and America. These elements are evident or embedded in the religious codes in the Bible and finds expression more or less in the best literatures of mankind, whether of the western, eastern or African origin.

The first is protection of the right to life. Good institutions focus on protecting life. The right to life is not just a right. It is the basis of any sustained economic development. It is the fundamental basis of continued existence of society. Where there is life is not guaranteed, there is no prospect of economic and social development as well as political stability. Let us consider the view of Thomas Hobbes. In a work that has become a classic of political philosophy, the Leviathan, Hobbes argues that it is the fear of losing their life in a war of all against all that forced humans to form political society and entrenched government. His rival in political philosophy, John Locke agrees that political community was only possible because people want to better protect their right to life. This is the heart of what we call the social contract theory that underlines any robust theory of democracy. Whereas Hobbes used the fact of fear of death to establish the legitimacy or validity of a dictatorial government, Locke used the same principle of protection of the right to life to justify a democratic government. The common point both make is that without the guarantee of life for citizens there would be not organized political society. In an illuminating statement Thomas Hobbes argues powerfully that where there is fear of our lives, where anyone can prey on another’s life, there would be no incentive to work, to create wealth and therefore no prospect of economic growth.

Protection of the right to life of citizens requires that institution will perform three key functions. First, they must affirm life. To recognize and protect the right to life of all citizens means that state institutions must affirm that every human being has the right to live. This means first that such society must accept unreservedly that life is worthwhile. It must affirm the value of life. In any society where the dominant culture has not regard for human life, that is that the life of everyone matters, there will be no protection of the right to life. As we shall see soon, many cultures do not affirm human life. And such cultures do not have capacity to grow wealth in significant and sustainable levels.

Secondly, institutions that protect the right to life must also be institutions that support life. This means that those institution will intentionally provide the facilities and utilities required to keep people alive. One basic aspect of the support is access to healthcare. Another is access to nutritious food and quality shelter. Every basic socioeconomic good that a society provides to its citizens constitutes efforts to provide support to the proposition of the fundamentality of life. In a larger context, supporting life requires sustained economic growth. Countries that have good institutions also prioritize economic growth to provide necessary social and economic amenities required to sustain life.

Thirdly, to recognize the fundamentality of the right to life requires that state institutions have clear commitment to protect life. Yes, it starts with affirming the fundamentality of right to life and gets to making every effort to support life and ends with a clear commitment to protect the right to life. This protection takes the form of constitutional and legal guarantee of the right and the administrative of justice to effectively prevent violation of the right and prosecution of the violation.

The second element is the rule of law. Institutions of growth and political stability requires the rule of law. When Douglas North argued about the primacy of institution in determining economic growth in human history, he emphasized how these institutions shape human actions and encouraged production. These institutions are able to do so through the instrument of the rule of law that guarantees to everyone the certainty and guarantee that first they would be alive and not destroyed by another, and second that they will be able to enjoy the fruit of their enterprise. The rule of law as part of the element of good institution is seen mostly from the lens of the sanctity of contracts, the protection of intellectual property and the subjection all persons to the objectivity and non-discrimination of the market principles.

The rule of law is primarily about the equality of all and the rejection of special privileges or prerogatives. The history of the rule of law starting from the Bill of Rights of 1689 and distilled into modern constitutions and declaration of human rights is the history of resistance to claim of divine right by kinds and the assertion of the equality of all persons before the law. Whether a country is a democracy or not, the primacy of the rule of law is now entrenched as the basic minimum for sustained development. The rule of law is not synonymous with electoral democracy. Many countries that hold periodic elections are not necessarily rule of law countries. In the same vein, some countries that do not hold periodic elections may be rule of law state as long as they subscribe to the principles and practice of equal opportunity for all under the law and guarantee to everyone right to the enjoyment of their endeavours.

These elements are embedded in religious sentiments that are widespread amongst the people. Without these elements you cannot construct a society that protect the property rights of the people and present opportunities to many for economic transactions. Without these important elements which are nourished by good religious beliefs and are part of the religious heritage of the people it will be difficult to move from predation to stability and growth.

As Nigerians celebrate the Ramadan it is important that we remember that righteousness exalts a nation and sin is a reproach. This requires that we begin to construct social relationships, including the institutions of social transactions in the morality of religious beliefs. By so doing we can create a culture of development that is based on righteous society, or to use Aristotle’s phrase, ‘a virtuous society’.

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