Crony Capitalism, the Asian Financial Crisis, and the Anticorruption Movement: What Are the Connections?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a minor diatribe responding to the related claims – which I had perceived in a number of recent blog commentaries – (1) that corruption is not really that big a problem for economic development, and (2) that the emphasis on corruption had more to do with the desire of Western countries to feel superior to the allegedly misgoverned countries in the so-called Global South. One of the targets of my critique, Michael Dowdle, has posted an interesting response that deserves careful consideration.

Dowdle explains that his original post did not claim “that everyone involved in the anticorruption movement is infected by” the impulse to claim moral superiority, did not claim that this impulse “is the only or even the predominant motor behind the global anticorruption movement,” and indeed did not claim that this impulse is “a distinctly Western mindset.” After making these helpful clarifications, Dowdle explains the root of his concern that the desire to claim moral superiority may (partly) explain (some of) the global anticorruption movement: the invocation of a particular kind of corruption – “crony capitalism” – to explain the failures of the neoliberal model of global capitalism, most prominently in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

In a nutshell, Dowdle’s argument goes something like this (and I apologize in advance for what I’m sure will be a bit of an oversimplification, but I think this is basically faithful): (1) the rapid growth of the Asian economies in the 1980s and 1990s, with their allegedly distinctive approach to government involvement in the market, posed a challenge to the purported superiority of American capitalism; (2) the Asian Financial Crisis delegitimized this alleged alternative model of capitalism, and so was greeted “with a clear degree of glee” from many American commentators; (3) commentators (mostly Western) claimed that a root cause of the crisis was “crony capitalism” – the alleged tendency to make loans based on political or social connections rather than expected returns – as part of an emerging narrative about how the “Asian Alternative” had failed; (4) in fact, however, crony capitalism had nothing to do with the crisis; and (5) the global anticorruption movement more generally “was strongly catalyzed by the discourse of corruption that American observers used to describe and explain” the Asian Financial Crisis.

For the moment, let me put aside that last point about the alleged causal relationship between the discourse of crony capitalism in the context of the 1997 crisis and the emergence of the global anticorruption efforts more generally – except to say that I’m skeptical that this was more than a minor factor. (Certainly Dowdle doesn’t point to any evidence, beyond the timing, that would substantiate this claim.) I want to focus instead on his intriguing and provocative arguments (A) that crony capitalism had nothing to do with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, but (B) that the emphasis on crony capitalism in some quarters reflected a desire to delegitimize a perceived Asian challenge to American/Western capitalism. I find this narrower version of Dowdle’s hypothesis much more plausible than the much broader version I (mis)understood him to be advancing in his original post. But I still find myself somewhat skeptical, so in the interests of continuing what at least for me has been a very stimulating exchange, let me push back against certain aspects of Dowdle’s argument here.

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Yes, Corruption Is Bad for Development. No, Corruption Is Not a Western Obsession

Recently there has been a spate of commentary in the blogosphere that revives a set of tired old canards about corruption and development — the related claims (1) that the focus on corruption and governance in the development discourse is misplaced, because there isn’t a lot of evidence that corruption matters much for development, poverty reduction, etc.; and (2) that anticorruption is a fixation of wealthy, mostly Western countries, because it enables people in those countries congratulate themselves about their moral virtue and to look down on habits and practices in the poor, benighted South. Recent examples include Chris Blattman’s posts on his blog (here, here, and here), Michael Dowdle’s contributions to the Law & Development blog (here and here), and Jason Hickel’s post on Al Jazeera English, though there are others as well.

Sigh. Do we really need to go through this again? OK, look: Yes, there are still lots of unanswered questions about corruption’s causes and consequences, and its significance for various aspects of economic development. And yes, some anticorruption zealots have sometimes over-hyped the role of corruption relative to other factors. But the overwhelming weight of the evidence supports the claim that corruption is a big problem with significant adverse consequences for a range of development outcomes. And the evidence is also quite clear that the focus on corruption as a significant obstacle to development comes as much or more from poor people in poor countries as it does from wealthy Western/Northern elites.

A blog post is not the best format for delving into a very large academic literature on the adverse impacts of corruption. And so the posts to which I’m responding might be forgiven for generally failing to provide much evidence in support of their claims that corruption is relatively unimportant for development, and largely a Western obsession. But, let me at least take a stab at trying to move the conversation beyond unsubstantiated declarations to some assessment of the actual evidence, starting with the impact of corruption on development.

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