There Is No “East Asian Paradox” of Corruption and Development

Imagine that you’re talking to a friend, and you mention that smoking shortens average life expectancy, and that smokers should therefore be encouraged to quit. Suppose your friend replies, “Well, but my uncle Fred smoked every day, and he lived into his 80s.” If your friend means this either (a) as a serious challenge to your empirical claim that smoking is bad for you, or (b) as a critique of your prescriptive argument that smokers should therefore be encouraged to quit, then you would probably find his response absurd on its face. And if your friend were to say that he has posed a serious conceptual conundrum—say he calls it the “Uncle Fred Paradox”—you would probably laugh at him. His argument might seem marginally less ridiculous if he pointed not to his Uncle Fred but to, say, France—which has relatively high smoking rates and relatively high life expectancy—but we probably still wouldn’t view this as a serious challenge to the view that smoking is bad for you, nor would we spend a lot of time wringing our hands worrying about the “France Paradox” in the smoking-health relationship.

Yet for some reason, in serious discussions about the relationship between corruption and economic development, people seem to make precisely this sort of specious argument, and the argument gets taken very seriously by people who should know better. The form the argument takes in this context goes something like this: “It may be true that high corruption seems to be correlated with lower levels of economic development on average. However, many countries in East and Southeast Asia—such as China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia—either achieved or currently are achieving impressively rapid economic growth despite widespread corruption.” This is the so-called “East Asian Paradox” (a term coined, as far as I know, by Professor Andrew Wedeman — see also his recent book). The somewhat more sophisticated version of the argument, developed most prominently in an article by Professor Michael Rock and Heidi Bonnett, notes that although perceived corruption has a negative relationship with growth and investment in most countries (especially small developing countries), this relationship becomes positive in a subsample consisting of five large, newly-industrializing Asian countries (China, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, and Japan), using data drawn from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s.

One encounters more-or-less sophisticated versions of the “East Asian Paradox” argument all the time when talking about the adverse impact of corruption on development. When someone says something like, “Corruption is a major threat to economic development,” someone almost invariably responds with something like, “But what about China? It has achieved impressive economic growth despite widespread corruption.” As far as I’m concerned, this is equivalent to saying, “But what about my Uncle Fred, the lifelong smoker who lived into his 80s?” But in case this is not completely obvious, let me explain why I think the “East Asian Paradox” argument, at least in its usual crude form, is mostly bogus. Continue reading