Corruption, revisted

One of the topics I’m most notorious for blogging about is the topic I know the least about: corruption. Basically, I’ve said it’s a second order issue, and a Western fetish. Here is a full slate of posts.

Matthew Stephenson, Harvard Law professor, has a new anti-corruption blog

As for citizens (especially poor citizens) in developing countries, if we want to know what they think about corruption, we could ask them–as indeed we have (see, for example, herehereherehereherehere, and here). And they consistently rank corruption as among their most significant concerns.

…I’ll throw out my own hypothesis about why so many academics in the blogosphere are drawn to the anticorruption-is-a-Western-obsession-that-doesn’t-matter-much-for-development canard: academics (and I speak as a member of the tribe) enjoy feeling like iconoclasts willing to speak uncomfortable truths to power. And in the development field, a certain type of academic particularly enjoys attacking anything that the major institutions (World Bank, U.S. government, OECD, etc.) seem to be for.

There are fair points throughout. I’ll make two in response.

  1. Second order issues are still important issues. The problem with most development policy is that everything is important. Everything matters for development. Setting priorities is hard. I haven’t seen the evidence that says corruption is one of the top 3 things the World Bank President or head of USAID should care about. Citizen surveys are useful, but not fully persuasive.
  2. Corruption strikes me as a symptom of deeper governance problem. Many if not most anti-corruption policies strike me as treating symptoms not the disease. Acemoglu and Robinson put it well: “corruption is a way for many economists and policymakers to talk about bad political outcomes without talking about politics.” I think we should be thinking about what builds bureaucratic capacity, how to restrain over-centralized regimes, and the political incentives leaders have to use patronage and repression to control their societies. Transparency might be part of that. And less corruption would be an important outcome. maybe. It’s not clear to me that either ought to be front and center policy aims.