Source: Project Syndicate
SAN JOSÉ – With authoritarianism and proto-fascism on the rise in so many corners of the world, it is heartening to see a country where citizens are still deeply committed to democratic principles. And now its people are in the midst of trying to redefine their politics for the twenty-first century.
Over the years, Costa Rica, a country of fewer than five million people, has gained attention worldwide for its progressive leadership. In 1948, after a short civil war, President José Figueres Ferrer abolished the military. Since then, Costa Rica has made itself a center for the study of conflict resolution and prevention, hosting the United Nations-mandated University for Peace. With its rich biodiversity, Costa Rica has also demonstrated far-sighted environmental leadership by pursuing reforestation, designating a third of the country protected natural reserves, and deriving almost all of its electricity from clean hydro power.
Costa Ricans show no signs of abandoning their progressive legacy. In the recent presidential election, a large turnout carried Carlos Alvarado Quesada to victory with more than 60% of the vote, against an opponent who would have rolled back longstanding commitments to human rights by restricting gay marriage.
Costa Rica has joined a small group of countries in the so-called Wellbeing Alliance, which is implementing ideas, highlighted by the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, for constructing better welfare metrics. Recognizing the shortcomings of GDP that the Commission emphasized, the Alliance seeks to ensure that public policy advances citizens’ wellbeing in the broadest sense, by promoting democracy, sustainability, and inclusive growth.
An important part of this effort has been to broaden the scope for the country’s cooperatives and social enterprises, which are already strong, embracing in one way or another a fifth of the population. These institutions represent a viable alternative to the extremes of capitalism that have given rise to morally reprehensible practices, from predatory lending and market manipulation in the financial sector to tech companies’ abuse of personal data and emissions cheating in the automobile industry. They are based on building trust and cooperation, and on the belief that focusing on the welfare of their members not only enhances wellbeing, but also increases productivity.
Like citizens of a few other countries, Costa Ricans have made clear that inequality is a choice, and that public policies can ensure a greater degree of economic equality and equality of opportunity than the market alone would provide. Even with limited resources, they boast about the quality of their free public health-care and education systems. Life expectancy is now higher than in the United States, and is increasing, while Americans, having chosen not to take the steps needed to improve the wellbeing of ordinary citizens, are dying sooner.