Are Anticorruption and Prodemocracy Policies Antithetical?

That is the question Pennsylvania State University Political Scientists Vineeta Yadav and Bumba Mukherjee leave readers to ponder at the conclusion of their fine new book, The Politics of Corruption in Dictatorships.  But not before the authors provide a plethora of new insights on anticorruption policy and political change in authoritarian states.

They begin with the well-known finding that non-democratic states are more corrupt than democratic ones and continue with a review of the standard explanations for why this is so.  Authoritarian states lack a free press, separation of powers, and the other means democracies have for holding corruption in check.  Furthermore, corruption is many times the glue that holds a dictatorial government together.  It’s the way rulers buy the support of the security services, business elites, and others that might be tempted to overthrow them.  It also provides leaders an insurance policy in the event supporters don’t stay bought as they can siphon off a bit (okay often a lot) into a rainy day fund somewhere offshore.

If the story were that simple, an examination of non-democratic states’ scores on cross-national measures of corruption would reveal two things:  first, the scores would all cluster at the “most corrupt” end of the measures; second, absent the rare political upheaval, the scores would remain relatively stable over time.  Here is where the story gets interesting – and where Yadav and Mukherjee go to work.

Of the 86 states Yadav and Mukherjee classify as dictatorial or authoritarian (terms they use interchangeably), corruption is low in close to half.  Furthermore, over the period 1985 – 2010 the scores of almost half these states declined. Why these differences?  What explains why corruption in some authoritarian states is low while it remains high in others?

Political change, the authors argue, requires two things: someone to demand it and some way for the demand to be heard and acted upon.  Start with the demand side.  Who in an authoritarian government is willing to say the government should do something about corruption?  Not ordinary citizens.  Not only do they lack access to an independent media, an impartial legal system, and the other ways citizens in democracies have for making their voices heard, they risk arrest, or worse, if they do raise their voice.

So who might be willing to stick their neck out?  This is where the authors break new ground.  They contend that across all authoritarian states there is a group that has both the incentive and the means to demand anticorruption policies: small- and medium-sized enterprises. The literature on politics in authoritarian states has heretofore treated the business sector as one big, undifferentiated lump.  The authors argue, and then show, that this masks significant differences within the business community.  There are the large, often state-owned businesses that form a part of the ruling elite — that in return for lucrative government contracts or monopoly rights over a particular sector of the economy support the status quo.

But there are also SMEs.  Unlike elite firm, they are not a part of the ruling clique; like the mass of the population, they are outsiders.  They are not, however, just any outsider.  Picking up on a large body of research by the World Bank and others, Yadav and Mukherjee argue that SMEs are a key part of the economy in authoritarian states: “they employ the most workers, own substantial shares of a nation’s fixed assets, and are significant generators of new jobs.” Despite their economic import, however, within the business community it is the SMEs who bear the brunt of a corrupt system, who confront on a regular basis demands from corrupt customs officials, tax collectors, and licensing authorities for “informal payments.”

If their vulnerability to corruption sets them apart from the elite businesses, whose political connections insulate them from its effects, SMEs also differ from the other group in society vulnerable to corruption: ordinary citizens.  For unlike citizens, under certain conditions (which Yadav and Mukherjee nicely explicate) they have a ready-made vehicle for coming together to demand change: a nationwide business association.  While usually viewed as “apolitical organizations” that are a useful conduit to governments on economic concerns, a broad, nationwide association of SMEs can also be the critical voice demanding reductions in corruption.

Voice alone, no matter how loud, is not enough to bring change of course.  A second contribution the authors make to thinking about corruption in authoritarian states comes from their delving into the conditions that make it likely an authoritarian state will respond to the demands of the SME community.  If previous analyses erred in treating the business sector in these countries as one big, undifferentiated lump, earlier analyses also erred in lumping all non-democratic states together under the rubric “authoritarian.” Yadav and Mukherjee remind that not all authoritarian regimes are organized the same way.  They differ “in how they manage the negotiations for policy concessions between opposition groups, regime elites, and the general citizenry, and consequently in the policy outcomes achieved through these negotiations.”  In their introduction, the authors suggest that differences in “these political institutions may influence corruption [levels] in autocracies” and succeeding chapters use a combination of sophisticated statistical techniques and in-depth case studies of Jordan, Malaysia, and Uganda to show just what type of political institution is most likely to respond to a demand from the SME community to combat corruption.

The Politics of Corruption in Dictatorships deserves a careful read by those seeking to reduce corruption in those states that are less than robust, Western-style democracies, and from students of politics in authoritarian states, and I won’t spoil the plot, or compromise book sales, by providing further details about Yadav and Mukherjee’s findings.

I will, however, return to the troubling question they leave with readers at the end: If authoritarian states that successfully reduce corruption can stave off democratic change, should “advanced industrial democracies and international financial institutions . . . push for implementation of anticorruption reforms?” in a future post.  I would invite comments and guest posts from readers on this most critical question.


11 thoughts on “Are Anticorruption and Prodemocracy Policies Antithetical?

  1. Reblogged this on omigacouk and commented:
    I am yet to read the book. However, this reflection or preview captures the very essence of corruption in Nigeria. Dictators close up avenues for exposure. In Nigeria, the infamous 1984 decree by the military junta headed at the time by the current Nigerian President was meant to shield military dictators against exposure by the media.
    Since 1966, military dictators in Nigeria always alleged corruption against the toppled administrations vowing to fight the menace but ended up further entrenching the practice. As a result, after over three decades of military rule, corruption has become a way of life.

  2. ” …less than robust, Western-style democracies…”

    Really? Once again we’re ‘lumping’ this on developing world? How many GFCs and WOTs do we have to have, at the loss of many trillions and millions of lives, before we include causes as well as symptoms?

    Swap out “developing” for “developed” and you have pretty much the same story. Free press? As a “western” (New Zealand) based journalist, I contend the author is guilty of lumping ‘the media’ into one “one big, undifferentiated lump”.

    So, like the author, I’ll repeat myself (somewhat): How many GFCs and WOTs do we have to have, at the loss of many trillions and millions of lives, before we stop using the free press myth to maintain false comparisons between developing and developed worlds?

    Please show me where this robust, Western style democracy actually exists. Like Gandhi, I think it would be a (really) good idea.

    . . .

    • Please forgive my ignorance, but could you explain what “GFCs” and “WOTs” are? I think I get the basic gist of your criticisms, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t misunderstand, and it would help to know what these abbreviations refer to.

      • Ah! I think I figured it out. GFC=”global financial crisis” and WOT=”war on terror”, right? I’ll assume for the moment that’s what those abbreviations stand for.

        I’m not sure if I completely follow your argument, but let me see if I’ve got it right:

        Rick’s post discusses this new book on corruption in autocratic states, which he (and I assume the book) defines as states that lack a free press, democratic elections, and separation of powers/checks and balances.

        Your critique is that the alleged distinction between countries that are “democratic” and have a “free press” is bogus, and reflects an attempt to blame the problems of the developing world on their bad institutions, when in fact the institutions of the rich Western countries are just as bad. The “free press” in countries like the US, UK, NZ, etc., is a “myth.”

        Your evidence for this is (if I follow correctly) the global financial crisis and the war on terror, both of which originated in the wealthy countries (especially the US) and have caused human suffering on a massive scale.

        Do I have that right? I hope so.

        Presuming that’s your argument, I hope you will allow me to respectfully disagree with the core claim. I will not here dispute the claim that the global financial crisis was largely the result of poor policymaking and irresponsible behavior by major financial institutions. Nor will I dispute the serious human cost of US-led military efforts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

        The point where I disagree with you concerns the implicit suggestion that any of this has anything to do with the arguments in the book, which Rick summarizes, or Rick’s additional thoughts in his concluding paragraphs. The only way I can see that it’s relevant is as an attempt to refute the idea that there’s any meaningful institutional difference between, say, the US and, say, North Korea or China or Qatar. The exchange seems to go like this:

        Rick/Book: “The politics of corruption and anticorruption look quite different in authoritarian states that lack elections and a free press than they do in countries like the US, and in order to understand those politics we need to be sensitive to those institutional and political differences.”

        You: “The US caused the global financial crisis and launched the destructive war on terror. Therefore, there’s no such thing as democracy and the free press is a myth.”

        If that’s the argument you’re making, then the fallacies are patent:

        First, as a logical matter, the fact that democracies can and have committed horrible sins of both commission and omission does not establish that there are no meaningful institutional differences between democracies and autocracies, or between those countries with a free(r) press and those with a government-controlled press. Your argument would only hold water if someone had somewhere hypothesized that the presence of elections and a free media would guarantee wise and moral government decision-making. But I know of nobody who makes any such claim.

        Second, your argument exhibits another classic logical fallacy: that of conflating the conclusion that X falls short of an ideal with the conclusion that X is no closer to the ideal than Y. But that doesn’t follow. To put this another way, there are two things that might mean when one says the free press is a “myth”: (1) There’s an idealized version of the “free press,” but the countries that claim to have a free press do not meet this ideal (though they sometimes pretend they do); (2) There is no difference in the degree of press freedom across countries; the press is just as “unfree” in the US as it is in North Korea. The first of these statements may well be true. The second statement is false. Indeed, as you are a journalist yourself, I can’t imagine you would seriously argue otherwise. To do so would be a grotesque insult to the thousands of heroic journalists all over the world who have struggled in the most inhospitable, oppressive, and violent conditions, and who would be taken aback to hear from a journalist in New Zealand that he labors under conditions that are just as “unfree” as theirs. The logical fallacy is this: Claim 1 is true; Claim 2, if true, would refute Rick and the book he reviews; you conflate Claim 1 and Claim to because they sound similar and can be described with the same sentence (“The free press is a myth!”), and therefore believe that Claim 1 refutes Rick/the book.

        Once those fallacies are exposed, then your response to Rick seems to me to be a non-sequitur. He says, isn’t it interesting how I learned in this book the ways the politics of anticorruption are different in autocracies than they are in democracies. To which you say, “WOT! GFC!” That’s not an argument. It’s a pose.

        If I’m wrong, though, I’d be more than happy for you to explain why.

        • Wow, much sophist, many sequitur … so thin veil.

          “It’s a pose”?

          Well, okay, Mr. Harvard Law Man, if you say so.

          I’m glad that there is somewhere in the world that regards the disappearance of trillions of dollars and millions of jobs, and lives (subject to confirmation from decades of rigorous, peer-reviewed academic study of course) as not really being proof of anything. I just don’t think that is the real world.

          Note that I refer to the author’s use of western democracy as a collective, which he claims is “robust”. And to a singular western press, which he believes is “free”.

          How many fake wars and bubble economies is Harvard happy with before admitting that there may be democracy, but it’s not robust, and there may be a press, but it’s far from free?

          I mean there must be an actual limit, surely?

          . . .

    • I’m not sure that the number of Google hits is really the test you want to use here. The phrase “myth of global warming” gets about the same number of Google hits (~121K). Just sayin’.

      • I’m not seeking to “test” anything other than the fact that a debate is occurring, and that there are books available about the myth of a free press.

        Thanks for associating my point with climate deniers, but I’ll decline the association, thanks.

  3. Pingback: Are Anticorruption and Prodemocracy Policies Antithetical? | Anti Corruption Digest

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