In an earlier blog post, we commented on the sources of corruption, the factors that have turned it into a powerful obstacle to sustainable economic development. We noted that the presence of dysfunctional and onerous regulations and poorly formulated policies, often created incentives for individuals and businesses to short-circuit them through the paying of bribes. We now turn to the consequences of corruption, to better understand why it is a destroyer of human prosperity.
Crony capitalism is the key development challenge facing Tunisia today
Last week’s Economist magazine focused on Crony Capitalism. From the powerful oil barons in the USA in the 1920s to today’s oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine, they show that such entrenched interests have been a major concern over time and around the globe. North Africa is no exception. The fortunes accumulated by the family and friends of President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were so obscene that they helped trigger the Arab Spring revolutions, with protestors demanding an end to corruption by the elite.
In a previous blog we discussed the factors that have pushed issues of corruption to the centre of policy debates about sound economic management. A related question deals with the sources of corruption: where does it come from, what are the factors that have nourished it and turned it into such a powerful impediment to sustainable economic development? Economists seem to agree that an important source of corruption stems from the distributional attributes of the state. For better or for worse, the role of the state in the economy has expanded in a major way over the past century. In 1913 the 13 largest economies in the world, accounting for the bulk of global economic output, had an average expenditure ratio in relation to GDP of around 12%. This ratio had risen to 43% by 1990, with many countries’ ratios well in excess of 50%. This rise was associated with the proliferation of benefits under state control and also in the various ways in which the state imposes costs on society. While a larger state need not necessarily be associated with higher levels of corruption—the Nordic countries illustrate this—it is the case that the larger the number of interactions between officials and private citizens, the larger the number of opportunities in which the latter may wish to illegally pay for benefits to which they are not entitled, or avoid responsibilities or costs for which they bear an obligation.
For those of us who have had an interest in corruption for much of our careers, there is little doubt that sometime in the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a shift in thinking within the development community about the role of corruption in the development process. The shift was tentative at first; continued reluctance to touch upon a subject that was seen to have a large political dimension coexisted for a while with increasing references to the importance of “good governance” in encouraging successful development. What were the factors that contributed to this shift? One that quickly comes to mind is linked to the falling of the Berlin Wall and the associated collapse of central planning as a supposedly viable alternative to the free market. It was obvious that it was not inappropriate monetary policies that led to the collapse of central planning but rather widespread institutional failings, including a lethal mix of authoritarianism (i.e., lack of accountability) and corruption.