Putting The United Back Into The United States: Author Manuel Hinds On The 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Published in
16 min readApr 5, 2021


Test your results by approaching someone close to you, starting by saying that you value them more than any position on any issue, and then telling them about the process you have been going through. Then tell them what positions that you were firmly against you are now ready to accept, both because you have come to understand them, or because you want to keep the relation going — that is, to agree to disagree.

As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Manuel Hinds.

Manuel Hinds is a Salvadoran economist, 75 years old. He is a consultant to private and public institutions, including the World Bank. He has served as minister of finance in El Salvador twice — first from 1979 to 1980, then between 1995 and 1999 — and as division chief at the World Bank, working with more than 30 countries. He was also the 2004–2005 Whitney H. Shepardson fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He is the author of The Triumph of the Flexible Society: The Connectivity Revolution and Resistance to Change and Playing Monopoly with the Devil: Dollarization and Domestic Currencies in Developing Countries and coauthor of Money, Markets, and Sovereignty, 2010 winner of the Manhattan’s Institute Hayek Prize. Hinds lives in San Salvador and has three daughters and five grandchildren.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in a middle-class home in El Salvador, went to a Catholic school and was very happy. I loved to play sports, mainly soccer, basketball, baseball and swimming. I was not particularly good at any of these, in the sense of making goals, or having a high batting average, or swimming exceptionally fast. Yet, I was always ready to play, and sports was very good for me.

We had a very active intellectual life in our family — my parents, my two older sisters and me — specially through the long conversations that we had after dinner since I can recall. My father decreed freedom of speech in those conversations, and we took enthusiastic advantage of the opportunity to talk mainly about history, literature and whatever we could have explored in popularizing texts of philosophy. These discussions became debates and gave shape to our reading lists. We read to defend our positions in those discussions. We discovered that by speaking ill of the popes we could get even with my mother’s daily scolding. She saw through it and protested frequently, but the rule of free speech stood.

Overall, I recall the relaxed environment in which we grew up. When in vacations, I went out on my own to play sports or visit other neighborhoods in long, merry expeditions with friends. All the adults around took care of us. We came back home just to eat our meals. It was a simpler world.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I had varied interests. At about eight, I wanted to write adventure novels on the style of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson. Then, I fell in love with architecture. Yet, when I went to college, I chose engineering, and I stuck to it. When I graduated, I worked for a while in a large shoe factory as an industrial engineer. Even if was very happy there, I felt increasingly attracted to broader economic subjects, not just to the problems of investment, employment and production of a single firm but also to those of entire countries. I decided to take my master’s in economics.

Then I worked for more than 30 years with the World Bank, gathering experience in 35 countries, first as a staff member, and then as an independent consultant. This was the defining activity in my professional life. It also gave a wonderful human experience.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

The most important project I have is the publication of my book In Defense of Liberal Democracy on April 13 this year. The book focuses on analyzing the causes of, and suggesting solutions for, the tragic divisiveness that is destroying social cohesion all over the world, including in the advanced nations and, particularly, in the United States. I hope the book will contribute to make people conscious of the gravity of the problem and have the change of heart that is needed for the country to renew its social cohesion.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

The more I live the more I feel that none of us can achieve success without a lot of help along the way. For this reason, it is very difficult to enumerate all the people I owe substantial debts for their help. If I had to choose one among so many, that would be my father, who transferred to me his classically liberal attitude to life, and specially the idea that one should always be open to be proved wrong.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

All the funny mistakes I have committed in my life are related to the fact that I am very absent minded. In combination with absent minded airline officers, once I took the wrong plane and then forced it to go back to the gate when listening the stewardess say, “welcome to the flight to White Plains” while I was going to San Francisco. It was not funny for the rest of the people in the plane.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Many books have had a significant impact on me. If I had to choose among them, I would select Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History (the two-volume condensed edition), which I read just before going to college. The book, which studies the way civilizations are born, develop, collapse and fall is frequently interpreted as predicting that all civilizations must one day collapse. In fact, Toynbee did nothing of the sort. He actually opened my eyes to see that life is a great adventure, and that, within certain limits, we can forge our destiny one way or the other, depending on what we do. if we do the things that led other civilizations to their collapse, we will collapse as well, but if we don´t, there is no reason why we would not keep on developing into more sophisticated shapes of society. Interestingly, divisiveness — the problem we are facing today — is among the major causes of collapse.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I will take the liberty of sharing two, not one, Life Lesson Quotes. They together summarize what I have learned from life. The first one is from John Stuart Mill, a British economist and philosopher of the nineteenth century. It addresses an issue internal to yourself: what will make you happy?

“I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming just at something else, they find happiness by the way.”

The other quote is from William Morris, a British polymath of the same century. It addresses the complex nature of the external reality that you will face in the pursuit of your happiness.

“I . . . pondered how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

Morris’s words portray the complexity of life, our inability to capture in a neat concept what we wish for, and our limited grasp of the effects of the interactions of the infinite dimensions of reality. They also portray how the loss of one battle may be offset by unexpected gains in other dimensions, and how desired outcomes have to be pursued again and again. This may sound discouraging. But this uncertainty, this continuous discovery of new aspects of reality, this transformation of one thing into another, is what lends life its zest and turns living into a fantastic adventure.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is bringing the best out of a team to pursue an objective that unifies the will of all of them. Leadership does not presuppose attaining the objective. It is concerned with pursuing it and is more important and significant when the result is uncertain. The best example I can think of is that of Winston Churchill, who, by unifying the British people in conditions of terrible danger, helped to turn uncertainty into a historic achievement.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

We have forgotten John Stuart Mill’s lesson, which was embedded in the American character since the country´s earliest times. On the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Calvin Coolidge said: “We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration [of Independence]. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all of our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.” Coolidge’s “things of the spirit” are moral principles expressed by the Golden Rule — do unto others what you want others to do unto you. It is what we are calling social cohesion, the interest in the communal problems that should accompany self-interest to give shape to a healthy society. When losing the social interest, what has remained in place is naked self-interest, which, by nature, is centripetal — it tends to divide society into groups and then into individuals looking for their own satisfaction exclusively. What emerges from that is a one-dimensional society, in which you are either a winner or a loser, which eventually leads to a world where you either kill or are killed.

The loss of social interest has eroded the American Dream. Coolidge was right that the latter depended on the former.

I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?

I think that, by setting aside the politicians and media outlets, you are putting your finger on the heart of the problem. As G. A. Borgese, an Italian writer, wrote about the fall of the Roman Republic: “Yet Caesar died, and tyranny lived on. For the seat of tyranny was not in the heart of Caesar; it was in the heart of the Romans”. The seat of the partisan atmosphere is in the heart of the people. They are the ones that create the demand for authoritarian and divisive leaders, and for divisive media messages. They, the people, are the ones that write and read avidly the attacks of ones onto others and enjoy the feeling of aggression that prevails in the social media. They are the ones that look for divisive, abrasive leaders who promise not a harmonious convivence with people who think different from us but instead their destruction. Politicians are not innocent sheep just providing what people are demanding from them. They fan the flames. But the process would not start without the divisionism of the population.

Sometimes, seeing how many issues split the country into two halves, with always the same people on each side, one cannot fail to observe that this happens within smaller groups as well, and even in couples. It seems that the country´s divisiveness is just a reflection of a general divisive attitude in the population at large, which, I believe, is related to the shift in values that has taken place in society in the last few decades, leading from the mixture of personal and social interest that was the basis of the American Dream toward that which prevails today, based on just self-interest. In this new set of values, anything that does not coincide with what I want is bad and unnerving and should be attacked. If nothing is done to prevent this process to continue, what we will see is a catastrophic fragmentation of the nation.

It was because of this that I wrote In Defense of Liberal Democracy: What We Need to Do to Heal a Divided America. I think it is coming right on time. I believe that liberal democracy is the best system to face the challenges we are facing today. But lately it seems as if the world is taking the opposite direction, that of verticality, not because of any failure in liberal democracy but because liberal societies are weakening in their commitment to it. It is a commitment we need to reaffirm. To do it we need to revive the social cohesion that has always been the foundational stone of the United States.

In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?

You have to break the ice and address the issue with the people close to you, establishing the point that friendship and family ties are infinitely more important than opinions about any subject, emphasizing that these differences should be seen as points of view that inform the all-important loving entity, that formed by friends or family members.

Going back to John Stuart Mill’s quotation, one might have many reasons to live for in your life — “on some object[s] other than [our] own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.” The most important of these, however, should be the development and maintenance of family and friendship bonds. The role of these bonds is to press all the members so close together that opinions do not clash internally as sticks to force the others to agree on something. Rather, they become lines of information enriching the loving entity, so that it would not develop too narrow to understand the diversity of life. So, rather than defining us as Democrats or Republicans who happen to be siblings, or friends, or lovers, we should define ourselves as siblings, friends, or lovers, who can explore the outside world for these entities we have created. We have to understand that in these explorations, each of the members of these entities will naturally develop different points of view and opinions.

How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?

I think that we should take the same approach with people in the office.

I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?

This is absolutely right. As we commented in a previous question, we should aim at defining ourselves as members of the largest entity that may define us in a meaningful way, which, when talking with family members is as a family member. When talking about national politics, for Americans is to be Americans.

Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?

I will not deny that social media companies have a vested interest in fanning the flames of conflict. Yet, they can do it because we harbor grudges inside us that respond to their calls for hatred in several ways. One, by tending to believe everything that supports our prejudices, which in turn are driven by the grudges. Two, by allowing ourselves to overlook the facts that contradict those prejudices. Three, by being ready to assume that those who think different from us are motivated by the darkest reasons and must be punished swiftly and harshly. Four, by establishing, in these and other dimensions, a double standard that will always favor our prejudices and castigate those of the other half of the population. Without these preconditions conveniently established inside us, the media companies would not be able to trick us into the divisionism we are in.

This can be expressed neatly with the words of the British novelist George Meredith, “We are betrayed by what is false within.” Social media and politicians are able to inject divisiveness because they have become capable of injecting its venom between the cracks we have inside us. There must be something divisive within us for the message of divisive politicians to stir an echo from us. We should deny them the access to do that.

Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?

People see every election as a battle for the very existence of the country because they would love to see them to be final. That is, they would like to see them as the occasion when the “bad side” was utterly destroyed, and the “good side” obtained absolute power. Since this is what voters want, the politicians they elect try to act in this direction, and the electoral temperature goes up to destructive heights. After all, people have come to live in a world where the alternative of total victory is the total destruction of the “good guys.” This is the psychology of the winner-takes-all. To avoid this situation, people should change their objective from the destruction of the “other guys” to attain a rational equilibrium in which the winner does not take all. Liberal democracy, with its checks and balances, works like that. But to work as intended, and to be sustainable, the system of checks and balances should work inside the individuals through the respect of the rights of the “other guys.”

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Americans must realize that the most important asset they have is to be Americans sharing in a common legacy of freedom and respect of individual rights. This recognition will attach a value to the conservation of these bonds.
  2. To turn concrete this decision, people should put in the shoes of people with opinions directly contradicting their own. Do it and try to identify what reasons or circumstances would push you to adopt those opinions without invoking criminal motivations.
  3. Imagine that you are defending people who have different opinions in those issues. Which arguments would you use given their circumstances?
  4. Identify, in the most sensitive issues for you, what kind of compromise you would be willing to accept? Would you accept things you would otherwise reject only to keep healthy your relationship with someone important for you?
  5. Test your results by approaching someone close to you, starting by saying that you value them more than any position on any issue, and then telling them about the process you have been going through. Then tell them what positions that you were firmly against you are now ready to accept, both because you have come to understand them, or because you want to keep the relation going — that is, to agree to disagree.

Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?

Talk about it and resolve the issues.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Yes, I think people in the United States have huge reserves of good faith, which is the raw material needed to rebuild the country’s social cohesion. Because of that good faith, the country has overcome several other crises. The shared experience is deep and long.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would use John Stuart Mill’s quote, above, telling them that I have confirmed its truth in my 75 years. I would keep in reserve two more quotations. The first is from Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived a Nazi death camp and found that people who cared about others kept their psychological health even there.

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. . . . Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

The other would be from Fyodor Dostoevsky. “For the secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Angela Merkel.

How can our readers follow you online?

I may establish a blog. In the meantime, you can contact me through Facebook.

This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!



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