Upcoming Conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World” (Sept. 23, Harvard Law School)

On Saturday, September 23rd, Harvard Law School, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, will host a one-day conference entitled “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World.” The conference will focus on an important and dangerous phenomenon: political leaders who successfully exploit anti-elite sentiment in order to achieve power, but who, once in office, seem primarily interested in enriching themselves, along with a relatively small circle of family members and cronies. Many Americans might find that this description accurately captures President Trump, who campaigned as a populist, but who is governing as more as a “crony capitalist” plutocrat—or, some would allege, as a quasi-kleptocrat.

Americans seeking to understand the challenges our country is now facing might do well to look abroad. After all, while Trump’s leveraging of the power of the presidency for personal enrichment—enabled by anti-elite sentiment among his supporters—may well be unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is not, alas, unprecedented in the modern world. Indeed, while every country’s experience is different, and we must always be careful not to overstate the parallels, many other democracies have had leaders who could be described as populist plutocrats, or even populist kleptocrats, in something like the Trump mold. While such resemblances have occasionally been noted (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), but there has not yet been much of a sustained attempt to understand populist plutocracy/kleptocracy and closely related phenomena in comparative perspective. The September 23 conference will seek to initiate more sustained exploration of these issues, and will also provide an opportunity for experts from other parts of the world–who have more experience with political leaders who combine populist rhetoric with self-interested profiteering and cronyism–to offer a distinct perspective on the challenges the United States is currently facing.

The conference will feature the following panels: Continue reading

Impunity and Immunity: When (if Ever) Should We Sacrifice Accountability for Past Corruption Crimes?

I’ve been meaning to write a bit more about last month’s International Anti-Corruption Conference (other than my snarky reflections about anticorruption conferences generally). The conference theme was “Ending Impunity,” and indeed most of the panels and speeches emphasized, in one way or another, the importance of ending the culture of impunity and holding corrupt actors (criminally) accountable for their actions. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of ending the culture of impunity. Indeed, I suspect few people would dispute that objective; the controversies, such as they are, involve questions of means. And as a general matter, I’m also all for accountability. Who wouldn’t be? But here my commitment is more qualified, and I think the issue is a bit more complicated then some of the rhetoric sometimes implies. In fact, in the context of corruption offenses, there may be sometimes be good, or at least plausible, reasons for sacrificing accountability in order to advance some other interest.

I recognize that statement may be controversial, perhaps even heretical. Is it really ever OK to insist on less than full accountability for past corruption crimes? If so, when? The first panel I attended at the IACC, entitled “Breaking the Cycle of Impunity: Why Truth Telling and Accountability for Past Economic Crimes Matters,” brought these difficult questions to the fore. The four excellent panelists (Hennie Van Vuunen, Osama Diab, Gladwell Otieno and Transparency International Chair Jose Ugaz) all came out (unsurprisingly) against impunity and in favor of accountability. But as the subsequent discussion revealed, the impulse to hold the corrupt (fully) accountable sometimes conflicts with other legitimate interests. Although everyone agrees that those who commit corruption offenses should never have impunity, there are reasonable arguments for sometimes granting them (full or partial) immunity. Consider a few possible scenarios in which one might be tempted to exchange (full) accountability for something else: Continue reading