Discover more from Vodou Economics
What if Alexander Hamilton was Haitian?
Could Alexander Hamilton have prevented the assassination of Jovenel Moïse? I don't mean if Hamilton was alive today. What if in 1804, at the beginning of Haiti's independence, America’s Caribbean founding father was helping design an actual Caribbean government and society. What would Haiti look like today?
One of Hamilton's most controversial policies--now immortalized on Broadway--was his idea to consolidate state debts into one national debt. Cabinet Battle #1 mentions the primary reason he wanted the new government to assume state debts: it would establish the nation's credit. But another reason is mentioned later in The Room Where It Happens. "When you got skin the game, you stay in the game."
Hamilton wanted to use the national debt to give rich Americans skin in the game. The plan was simple. After consolidating the debt, the new government would issue bonds. The bonds would be purchased by rich Americans. And the only way these Americans would get their money back is if the nascent government succeeded. Rich Americans, who had great political influence, now had a financial incentive to support the Constitution.
If we consider just this Hamilton achievement, then Haiti did have its own Alexander. Alexandre Pétion implemented a similar policy to create skin in the game. But his policy differed in one key dimension, and it might have made a significant difference in the political economy of Haiti and its subsequent development.
Pétion's most significant policy was the breaking up of the French plantations and the redistribution of land to the common Haitian. Like Hamilton, Pétion had several motivations. The plantations were symbols of the oppressive slave regime Haiti had just overthrown. The government was also in a financial bind, and selling pieces of the plantations supplied an important source of revenue. But let's focus on the relevant motivation for this essay: Pétion was giving Haitians skin in the game.
Giving former slaves their own land tied them to the new Haitian government. Pétion saw a glaring need for this incentive alignment. Contrary to common interpretations of the Haitian Revolution, the fight was not a simple "slaves vs owners" or "black vs white" conflict. The political divisions included royalists vs republicans and French vs British, putting many of the Haitians on opposing sides. Then, just after independence, Haiti split into two countries, the Republic of Haiti and the Kingdom of Haiti. Pétion needed to get his people invested in the success of the Republic. Since a new regime might confiscate their property, land provided the motivation to support the government.
Alexandre Pétion tied the peasants to the nation's success, but maybe he should have followed Alexander Hamilton and targeted the elite. Did Haiti's elite have enough skin in the game? Apparently not, given that the biggest threat to Haiti's political stability was intra-elite competition. There was no stable rent-sharing agreement, so there was constant competition for the presidency. From 1806 to 1915, 17 of 24 presidents were overthrown by revolution.
Compare this to presidential assassinations in the U.S. All were committed by lone-wolf crazies. It was unimaginable that a politician, or any citizen, would initiate violence against the government expecting to gain political power. There was too much to lose. But in Haiti, the political turnover was driven by people replacing the leadership. Apparently Haiti had failed to achieve an equilibrium that made the elites internalize the externalities of political instability.
So could Alexander Hamilton have prevented the assassination of Jovenel Moïse? Maybe a Haitian Hamilton would have solved the problem with the elite. A better political architect might have designed a more stable foundation. And maybe it's not too late. Even today opportunity for the elite is limited and best sought outside of Haiti. Or it might be sought inside of Haiti through political insurrection. Haiti still hasn't convinced the most powerful citizens that Haiti's success is their success. If it could, then maybe Moïse would still be alive today.